October of 2019 was a busy one in downtown Somerset -- and at the Judicial Center Plaza in particular.
There were the usual events that Somerset has come to count on each year: The zombie-themed Walker Weekend on the second Saturday, and Somernites Cruise on the fourth. And two major new festivals joined the line-up as well: The Chill Out and Proud Festival on the first weekend of the month (coinciding with LGBT History Month in the United States) and the downtown-centered Moonlight Festival, put on by the City of Somerset.
But with the current controversy over booking the plaza for events, the way in which those events unfold is a little less certain this year.
So far, the first half of October at the plaza has been booked -- but not for large-scale community festivals like those. According to information provided to the Commonwealth Journal by Pulaski County Judge-Executive Steve Kelley's office, only a dozen dates in 2020 have been reserved by parties wishing to use the county government-owned plaza venue -- but four of those are in October, making it a popular month.
However, the first two weekends, instead of going to Chill Out and Proud and the Somerset Junior Woman's Club (SJWC) organized Walker Weekend, are listed as follows -- Oct 3, "Preaching and Music (LOTS)," and October 10, "Youth Rally (Campground Church)."
Walker Weekend is on the schedule -- this time for October 17, the third weekend. And the fourth is the annual mainstay Somernites Cruise, which is nearly the only entity to have booked the plaza so far, reserving its dependable fourth-Saturday spot throughout the calendar. The only other event to have scheduled the plaza is another SJWC fundraiser, the Sample of Somerset food-tasting affair, on June 4 and June 11.
"For 2020, the date that we've had the last nine years for the Somerset Zombie Walk (in either its original or current organizational incarnation) has been taken by some other group," said organizer Wynona Padgett. "This year we were able to book the third weekend, but I'm not sure we'll be able to keep this date because the city had their Moonlight Festival (on the third weekend) this year, and I'm sure that will take precedence if they have that again."
Padgett added that Somernites Cruise had not yet reserved its dates when she was trying to schedule Walker Weekend, but even though the fourth Saturday was open at that time, Padgett didn't even consider trying to hold the zombie event then because of the Cruise's prominence.
"There are some dates we all know that we don't schedule anything in the area that weekend," she said. "... There are certain dates things happen in this community, and people expect it."
This has become an issue because of comments made during a SPEDA (Somerset-Pulaski Economic Development Authority) meeting earlier this month, as a result of a discussion about the project to add a covering over the plaza's stage. The idea of instituting a clean-up fee for those who use the plaza was thrown out there, and Kelley, a SPEDA board member, noted that he'd like to see a committee formed to help sort out who books the plaza.
"I would probably prefer that, because after last month's events, we've already got it booked all next year," he said. "People trying to pre-empt that happening again, so they've booked it all year long."
The "last month's events" referred to the Chill Out and Proud Festival. The first major LGBTQ pride event in the community's history was not without its controversy, as protestors gathered outside the contained plaza space.
As it turned out, the plaza has not actually been booked "all year," as Kelley stated in the meeting. Kelley later clarified his comments to the Commonwealth Journal, saying, "Not every date is booked, but there are several churches which have booked it for gospel singing events."
Kelley later did a radio interview with Somerset 106 FM and said that he's been "on record in a not-so-accurate way" and that his "comments were made kind of out of context," that while he said at that SPEDA meeting that the plaza had been booked for the whole year, "I just said that for effect." He added that after this year's Chill Out and Proud Festival, "We got a lot of calls to our office wanting to book that plaza for the same time next year and basically the whole month next year." Kelley also said, "It's becoming more popular and it's going to be more of a distraction trying to deal with that than it is a benefit to the public, so I'd rather have that off of Amber's desk."
"Amber" refers to Executive Secretary Amber Rutherford, who has been handling the plaza booking calls for Kelley's office. A committee would ease that burden on Rutherford. The space is a public venue that can be reserved by anyone currently, essentially on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Even the clean-up fee doesn't come without potential pitfalls. Padgett, who has also held events on the plaza with Watershed Arts Alliance as well as SJWC, said that they always make a point of cleaning up afterward, which often involves volunteers taking trash bags to dumpsters (Padgett was grateful to the city and county governments for providing use of their dumpsters) and paying a $100 fee to have that taken care of would be a relief for those organizing these events.
However, "I think a group that wanted to have some kind of candlelight vigil for domestic abuse awareness or something like that, (the fee) would not be as viable because a lot of groups are not there to make money ... and don't have a lot of money."
She added, "I don't know that we need a committee, but we need someone whose main job it is to handle the booking. I don't know that Amber has the time. I know I called her several times trying to figure out what to do about the zombie walk. It's a huge undertaking, and there are other events that are a huge undertaking, like the Blues, BBQ and Arts Festival."
As far as the Chill Out and Proud Festival, the news about the plaza attracted the attention of the statewide QueerKentucky online blog, which published an entry on November 12 called "Rural Kentucky town's Pride event in jeopardy," which used a Tweet by local citizen Krissy Brant to frame a story on the subject. The blog quoted Brant as saying, "Our rural Kentucky town held its first Pride event this year in the town plaza - the largest public gathering spot. For a largely conservative county, this was huge. But local churches have attempted to block a second annual pride by booking the plaza *every weekend* next year. ...The county judge executive dropped this news nonchalantly, despite the fact this is a clear affront on the LGBTQ community: 'After last month's events, we've already got it booked all next year. People trying to preempt that happening again, so they've booked it all year long.'"
However, Chill Out and Proud Festival organizer Kat Moses isn't terribly concerned about the future of the LGBTQ Pride festival, whether the Judicial Plaza is available or not.
"While the QueerKentucky publication independently took an individual's Tweet about the Plaza bookings (and) surmised that our pride event is in jeopardy themselves, they are mistaken," said Moses in a statement to the Commonwealth Journal. "Having the Plaza booked through October doesn't impact the Pride Festival because the Plaza isn't the only space to hold an event. In fact, we have been looking into other spaces since before the first event occurred, when it was determined that we did not earn any event holder rights in booking the plaza since no application or fee is in place which meant we could not establish or enforce our own festival rules.
"Besides, Pride is a living, breathing thing. It can't be stifled by a location being booked. It doesn't reside in any space, it resides in the spirits of human beings," she added. "The situation doesn't surprise me at all unfortunately. Susan Faludi theorizes that any time progress is made, backlash is perpetrated against the demographic making progress (and) that's what we are seeing from those attempting to block the festival. Some citizens are fearful of change, but their fear doesn't negate its necessity or inevitability. With progress comes diversity.
"Organizers will seek a large space, assuming that our turnout will be larger than our first festival, but are open-minded as pride events take on a variety of different styles all over the world," added Moses. "I am glad that the County Judge Executive's Office is seeking a more concrete procedure for Plaza bookings to aid in making the space work better for everyone in our community."