Old Sacramento business owners aren’t the only people upset with the cancellation of the annual Gold Rush Days festival.
Mayor Kevin Johnson and some members of the City Council had sharp words for City Manager John Shirey on Tuesday night about the city’s decision to cancel the festival over drought concerns.
The streets of Old Sacramento are covered in dirt every Labor Day weekend to create an 1850s feel for Gold Rush Days. That effort requires 3,000 gallons of water a day to keep the dust in place, plus another 100,000 gallons of water at the end of the event to wash away the dirt.
The mayor and City Council were not notified in advance of the decision to cancel the event, which draws more than 100,000 visitors to Old Sacramento and is a major economic boost to the businesses in the historic district.
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“It was a decision made without the council being given the opportunity to give input or at least try to problem-solve,” Johnson said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
The mayor asked Shirey to report back to the City Council with options for the event. He said he wanted to know if there were alternatives to the size and design of the festival that’s been held since 2000.
“We’re all concerned about the drought and want to be smart when it comes to water,” he said.
Steve Hammond, head of the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his agency is developing a “Plan B” for the weekend that could include expanded live music, movie screenings, a pub crawl and a street dance.
“We’ve been in communication for a few weeks (with businesses) about what kind of entertainment we can produce for that weekend,” he said.
But Hammond said the traditional Gold Rush Days event could not take place without dirt on the streets. He said Pony Express actors can’t perform stunts without a dirt cushion and that the dirt keeps the street temperature down on hot days. Horses cannot pull carriages and wagons when the street temperature reaches 100 degrees, Hammond said.
“The majority of the programming we have for Gold Rush Days won’t happen because it wouldn’t be safe for the animals and it wouldn’t be safe for the riders,” he said.
Hammond said he was surprised to receive pushback after canceling the event, especially after city and state agencies ordered strict water reductions.
“We’re trying to do the right thing,” he said.
Councilwoman Angelique Ashby first raised concerns with the event’s cancellation, posting on Twitter on Monday evening that she was “very disappointed” with the news. She wrote that she had been told by city tourism officials that the event “wouldn’t work without the dirt roads.”
On Tuesday, Ashby said she had heard from more than 100 people on social media sites that they were not happy the festival had been called off. She said she thinks the event’s impact in view of the drought may have been overestimated.
“I’m not even convinced we need to modify the event,” she said.
Councilman Steve Hansen said he had also heard from many city residents about their displeasure with the news.
“I believe the council should have a chance to see what we can do,” he said. “Ideally, we could come up with an event that can be good for families and celebrate our history.”
Old Sacramento businesses said this week that the event makes up a significant portion of the area’s business for the year. Some owners said they create their annual budgets based on attendance assumptions from Labor Day weekend.
Other business owners said they thought the event could be held with or without dirt streets.