This weekend, over 100,000 people will fill Downtown Stockton to take part in the city’s most cherished tradition: The Asparagus Festival. Patrons will enjoy live bands, various activities, plenty of spirits, and, of course, copious amounts of asparagus prepared in an assortment of ways. Sadly, this may be the last time the festival will be held in downtown as officials are considering a move to the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds.
Three separate sources have confirmed with SCL that festival officials may move the event from Downtown Stockton to the fairgrounds starting in 2014. Moreover, Asparagus Festival officials acknowledged on their Facebook page that no decision had been made on whether or not the festival will remain at its current location.
While I am sure there are legitimate reasons why a move is being considered, I think this is a huge mistake: a move away from the waterfront to the fairgrounds will be disastrous for both the Asparagus Festival and Stockton as a whole.
The Asparagus Festival is by far the largest, most visible event in Stockton, drawing people from all over the region who otherwise would have little exposure to our city outside of negative news stories. Given the festival’s popularity, it is imperative that visitor’s experience the best of what Stockton has to offer. Ever since the move from Oak Grove to the waterfront, the event has become more than just a celebration of a vegetable; the Asparagus Festival is a showcase for the city, demonstrating Stockton’s uniqueness and potential.
Needless to say, it’s hard to showcase the best of Stockton at the county fairgrounds.
While the fairgrounds may make a bit more sense logistically, offering more space for festival events and parking, there is nothing particularly unique that the fairgrounds can provide to the Asparagus Festival. Hosting the festival along the water distinguishes it from all other festivals in the region. Every county has fairgrounds, few cities boast a waterfront.
I am sure that Asparagus Festival officials face legitimate concerns over continuing to host the event at the waterfront. However, it is my personal opinion that the benefits of moving to the fairgrounds are vastly outweighed by the benefits of remaining downtown. For one, even though downtown lacks the amount of parking available at the fairgrounds, the attendance still regularly tops 100,000. In fact, the lack of parking probably encourages many to carpool or take public transportation, potentially cutting down on drunk driving in the process.
Additionally, moving to the fairgrounds effectively kills the busiest weekend of the year for the city’s much ballyhooed marina. To me, this is what makes the Asparagus Festival unique as there are few food-themed festivals accessible by boat. Also, by moving away from the waterfront, there are no paddleboats, no delta river cruises, and no delta sunsets.
Other activities would be stymied as well, such as the Spear-It Run events. Running along the scenic waterfront is certainly more inviting than a run around the fairground. Even if the race remained downtown, the allure would be diminished by the absence of the festival.
Instead of moving the event entirely, there should be a discussion about how to improve the festival at its current location, as I am sure there is room for improvement. For example, the ballpark and arena could be leveraged to expand the festival’s footprint. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think these venues are incorporated at all in the festivities, which provides a huge opportunity to expand the festival’s size (given that the Ports and Thunder can agree to block off those few days). For starters, the headlining concerts can be held at the ballpark, which can accommodate around 5,000. It’s been done before, such as when John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson performed there in 2009. This would free up space at Weber Point for other activities or entertainment options. The Arena floor could be used for exhibition space as well. Moreover, there is a whole open dirt lot in front of the arena facing the water that is slated for development one day. Until that day actually arrives, those few acres of dirt could provide even more space.
The bottom line is that downtown is the best location for the Asparagus Festival, hands down. The city’s most visible event deserves to be held at its most distinctive location. Since the move from Oak Grove, attendance has regularly topped 100,000, save for a few years where the weather did not cooperate. If the event relocates to the fairgrounds, boaters would not be interested, and Stocktonians who visit the site for the county fair may not be inclined to visit the fairgrounds again for the Asparagus Festival. I imagine that there is some concern over the cost of holding the festival downtown. If this is the case, I hope which ever city department has jurisdiction over this issue realizes the true costs and benefits of where the festival is held, not just dollar amounts.
**UPDATE** The Record is reporting that the city is asking for a larger share of the proceeds and that the festival has in turn developed a back up plan to move to the fairgrounds. Hopefully, both sides can come to an agreement, because if the festival moves, everyone loses.