After 29 years, a piece of Stockton’s identity is gone. And with it, a valuable piece of the effort to revitalize the city’s historic downtown district.
On Tuesday, the Asparagus Festival’s 12-member board announced that the annual celebration of the Delta region’s famous vegetable would not return for a 30th anniversary. The board cited two years of depressed turnout and the festival’s decreasing ability to generate profit for local charities as the reasons for discontinuing the event. In short, the festival was no longer a money-maker, and the broke city of Stockton would no longer foot an annual subsidy to keep the event on life support.
But the hammering of nails into the festival’s coffin isn’t just a blow to those who made the event an annual tradition or held it up as a talisman of local pride. It’s also another hit against an area of Stockton that needs help becoming more vibrant and livable.
According to numerous studies, including a recent report from the Council of Infill Builders, a lack of amenities and activities in Central Valley downtowns is a major obstacle to revitalizing these areas. Festivals and smaller, more frequent “pop-up” events introduce people to areas they wouldn’t normally visit, the report states. And occupation is the first step to generating life in moribund infill areas.
Since 2003, the Asparagus Festival brought thousands of people to the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza, the Weber Point Event Center, Janet Leigh Plaza and the Promenade — some of the core areas spruced up in the city’s effort to transform downtown into a vibrant neighborhood. With the festival apparently relegated to history, that’s one less chance to introduce a wave of potential urban pioneers to the bright side of Stockton’s center.
It’s also one less chance to make downtown feel safe. One often-cited reason why people don’t travel downtown is its reputation as a dangerous area, filled with unsavory characters and the possibility of bodily harm. While downtown Stockton is actually much safer than it’s generally given credit for, perception rules when it comes to security. But having large groups of people occupy an area — say, folks enjoying a festival — is one tactic to make a place feel safe, not to mention an amazingly useful way to effectively police an area without needing a corps of uniformed officers.
Both in terms of practicality and civic pride, the loss of the Asparagus Festival stings. It won’t derail efforts to breathe life into downtown, but it’s another cut to an area that’s already suffered hundreds. And it’s one of the reasons that Stockton’s residents and leading organizations need to put on their thinking caps to come up with another event — or events — that can make downtown the focus of attention.
There are already plenty of events that have taken root in downtown. Recently, a Cinco de Mayo festival and a pet spay-neuter day have taken over Weber Point. And on Thursday, Janet Leigh Plaza played host to the unveiling of a utility box mural project to brighten up one of the city’s best public spaces.
We need to imagine more of these events to replace the lost glamour of the Asparagus Festival and put downtown Stockton’s best foot forward to those who have yet to discover its potential.