Safety first: Organizers, police will review added crowd safety measures for Festival of Lights

Mike Wolanin | The Republic The Columbus Festival of Lights Parade makes its way up Washington Street in downtown Columbus, Ind., Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023.

They ideally want to avoid being Grinches.

But organizers and police say they will review added ways keep attendees from wandering into Washington Street during the mile-long, Columbus Festival of Lights Parade that was just held Saturday night with 85 entries.

They saw an old challenge materialize again, just as it has for at least the past decade or more: a thick crowd especially around Fifth and Washington streets — a crowd that edged chairs so far into Washington Street “that they nearly could touch the wheels of some of the passing floats,” according to Amy Stoughton Berquist. She is chief financial officer of the nonprofit Red Arch Community Events Inc. that organized the event.

She added that volunteers and some of the 25 Columbus Police Department officers working the event, thought to be the most security ever used (among an entire Columbus Police Department staff of 88 people), tried their best to move attendees back.

But Berquist said that many people moved only temporarily, until authorities moved onward to check on crowds further up the street.

Most of the youngsters and parents with small bags were edging forward into the streets to get candy from those in passing float entries. To avoid this in the future, Berquist mentioned that maybe candy could be distributed along the route before the procession begins, with float participants not handing out candy along the parade route as floats pass by.

Those in the parade have been allowed to walk beside floats and hand candy to parade-goers, who tend to attempt to crowd each other out into the street, as not every child gets candy from each entry.

Lt. Matt Harris, police department spokesman, said the overall size of the crowd, estimated to be largest in years at the event and probably more than the 7,000 to 10,000 estimated most years, affected some of the efforts at control and management.

“Obviously, with a crowd of this size, we don’t have the resources to have officers at every point of the route,” Harris said. “But we also encourage people to use common sense (for safety).”

He said that common sense includes staying put after the parade beings and not crossing the street for any reason once the procession begins.

“For the most part,” Harris said, “most everyone seems to follow officers’ instructions.”

The parade began on Dec. 4, 1993, with 52 units, with the staging area that year at Mill Race Park. That later was moved to the Cummins Inc. lot on Brown Street. It was canceled in 2013 because of a snowstorm and bitter cold. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was canceled again in 2020.

And it was canceled last year after organizers with the nonprofit JAKKS Inc. in Sept. 2022 cited a shortage of volunteers and rising costs with insurance and more.

Harris said that he has heard others suggest some form of fencing to keep attendees out of the street.

“But we really shouldn’t have to do that,” he said, adding that it increases parade expenses.

Joyce Lucke, the coordinator with JAKKS which presented the parade for years, said her group once considered using a soft rubber fencing to keep crowds out of the streets, but decided against it. The Columbus Area Arts Council successfully used such barriers at past events with 7,000 people at Rock the Park in Mill Race Park. But those crowds were more spread out than people along the parade route, including some people tightly clustered six rows deep .

“Other parade coordinators elsewhere said that it could make things more dangerous, especially if someone was accidentally pushed forward against it,” Lucke said of the rubber fencing.

She confirmed also that there always were some every year in the parade crowd who ignored the safety admonitions of her hired team of 11 Securitas uniformed security personnel.

Parade history

1993: The event begins with 52 entries.

2013: The event is canceled for the first time after a snowstorm and wind chills in the single digits provoking concerns about youngsters in the procession.

2020: COVID-19 cancels the event.

2022: The nonprofit JAKKS Inc. cancels the event, citing a shortage of volunteers and rising insurance and other costs.

2022: A new nonprofit, Red Arch Community Events Inc., agrees the organize the 2023 event.