Popular weekly Palmer street fair paused due to ‘safety issues’

A near-miss vehicle-versus-pedestrian accident Friday sparked the two-week cancelation decision, chamber of commerce officials said.

Popular weekly Palmer street fair paused due to ‘safety issues’
Shoppers visit food vendors at the weekly Friday Fling event in Palmer on May 17, 2024. (Amy Bushatz/Mat-Su Sentinel)
  • The popular Friday Fling street fair in downtown Palmer is canceled for June 28 and July 5 due to safety concerns caused by vehicles driving through the event's staging area during vendor setup and teardown, chamber of commerce officials said. The event will resume on July 12 with safety changes that could include hiring private traffic enforcement officers, they said.
  • An unidentified chamber employee was nearly struck Friday by a vehicle ignoring traffic cones, officials said. There have been eight documented car-versus-pedestrian near-miss incidents this season, including a pair involving nonvendor drivers, they said.
  • The short-notice cancellation has left some vendors scrambling to make up for lost revenue. A series of alternative events at locations around Palmer are planned for the canceled dates.

PALMER — A popular street fair held in downtown Palmer on Fridays during the summer will be canceled for the next two weeks because of safety problems caused by vehicles driving through the event's staging area during vendor setup and teardown, chamber officials said.

An unidentified chamber employee was nearly struck by a vehicle after a driver ignored traffic cones blocking South Valley Way in downtown Palmer at about 6:45 p.m. Friday, Greater Palmer Chamber of Commerce President Kelly McKay-Dolfi said in an interview Tuesday. The street was closed as vendors packed up their tents and food trucks, she said.

A report of Friday's near miss was filed with the Palmer Police Department, she said.

A Palmer police spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

The Friday Fling, held in downtown Palmer from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays from mid-May to mid-August, features dozens of arts and crafts vendors and food trucks and draws hundreds of visitors each week. A 0.10-mile stretch of South Valley Way in front of the Palmer Visitor Information Center is closed to traffic for the duration of the event each week.

The event is canceled for June 28 and July 5, according to an email sent to vendors late Monday. Vendor fees will be refunded for those dates, the email said.

The event will reopen on July 12 with a new traffic safety plan in place, which could include hiring private traffic control officers, McKay-Dolfi said.

The decision to cancel was made in a closed executive session during an emergency chamber meeting Sunday, she said.

The cancellation notice emailed to vendors late Monday did not cite any specific safety incident.

“Several situations have occurred surrounding the operation of vehicles within the event area that have endangered both staff and public,” the email said. “We have been unable to mitigate these safety issues as of Friday and the dangerous vehicle activity continues to jeopardize safety.”

The short-notice change has left some vendors scrambling to find a way to make up expected event revenue, they said. They were unaware of any major traffic safety issues until they received the chamber's email Monday, they said.

“What’s kind of crazy to me is as a vendor who is there, we spend the whole day there and we actually have no idea what’s going on either,” said Zoe Ash, who owns Farm Loop Coffee and operates a booth on South Valley Way near where McKay-Dolfi said the near-miss took place. “It’s just so uncertain, and it’s tough.”

Ash said she brings in about $800 in sales during each Friday Fling event and pays the chamber about $75 a week for the booth space.

Elise Giordano, who owns The Wilds and sells sourdough bread, baked goods, and produce at Friday Fling, said she fears the sudden cancellation will confuse shoppers and keep them away when the event reopens. She said her Friday Fling booth brings in about $1,200 weekly.

Neither the chamber's website nor its Facebook pages featured an announcement of the closure as of Wednesday morning.

Several community members have organized free, alternative vendor spaces for the canceled dates. For example, Cold Moon Collective, an upcycled clothing and vintage home goods store on the Glenn Highway just outside Palmer, is partnering with nearby Mountain Field Farm to host all the vendors and food trucks displaced by the cancellation this week, with a smaller number next week due to space constraints caused by a previously scheduled event. The Palmer Senior Center on South Chugiak Street has also offered to host food trucks in its parking lot.

All told, there have been eight documented car-versus-pedestrian safety incidents this season, McKay-Dolfi said. Those include situations in which vendors pulled their vehicles into the event space prematurely to load or unload booth items from their cars, nearly hitting customers, including children in a stroller, she said. One vendor was permanently removed from the event for violating vehicle rules, she said.

The other incidents, including the one Friday night, involved nonvendor drivers who ignored traffic cones closing the street during the festival's end-of-day cleanup and nearly hit pedestrians, she said.

“We’re just trying to be responsible — trying to be responsible for the city, we’re trying to be responsible for the chamber and we’re trying to be responsible for the general public,” she said.

Vehicle control around the festival is a serious concern not only because the safety of chamber employees and visitors is important, she said, but also because accidents could create a large financial liability for the chamber.

“At this point in time, it’s completely irresponsible for us to let that market run as it is,” she said.

Vendors are allowed to drive into the event space to unload items during staging times at 8 and 9 a.m. each Friday, McKay-Dolfi said, and may not re-enter the area to load until at least 6:15 p.m. Those who violate the rules can be permanently banned from the event, she said.

McKay-Dolfi said there are no documented vehicle safety issues from past years, and any that did occur were not reported to the chamber board.

Erin Velander, the chamber's executive director who oversees day-to-day operations, was hired by the organization before the event season and had not previously worked at chamber events, she said in an interview earlier this year. Velander referred all questions about the Friday Fling cancellation to McKay-Dolfi.

The apparent increase in vehicle-related safety issues this year is likely due to a combination of factors, McKay-Dolfi said. Unlike previous seasons, the city of Palmer did not provide large yellow barricades to block off the street, instead requiring the chamber to use its own barricades or cones, she said. An apparent increase in traffic heading to free Friday evening concerts at the nearby Palmer Alehouse means more vehicles on the street as festival vendors pack up their items, she said.

Interim Palmer City Manager Gina Davis did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Davis was appointed to the role following the retirement of longtime City Manager John Moosey earlier this month.

"Our manager found out about this yesterday. We have a manager form of government—we need to respect that process," Palmer Mayor Steve Carrington said at a City Council meeting Tuesday. "I want to make sure that our interim manager has a chance."

Officials with the Palmer Alehouse did not respond to requests for comment.

The cancellation follows a pair of controversial changes to chamber events this year.

In early March, chamber officials told Friday Fling vendors that due to volunteer staffing, parking and "diluted customer spending" at event vendors and nearby brick-and-mortar businesses, only six food trucks would be given spaces this year, cutting the previous number by about half. That decision was reversed days later after an outcry from the community.

In late April, chamber officials announced they would no longer host the popular Mid-Summer Art and Garden Faire in mid-July, saying the event would be canceled altogether unless a local nonprofit agreed to take over its organization. The Palmer Museum of History and Art took over part of the event and will host "Art in the Garden" on museum grounds in late July.

-- Amy Bushatz can be contacted at abushatz@matsusentinel.com.

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This story was updated Wednesday with information from the Palmer City Council meeting.

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