Every September, Sykesville officials look to the calendar, certain that the annual October Fall Festival is floundering. There is even talk that the town government should take over.
But, undeterred, organizers insist the festival is flourishing. The Sykesville Business Association is moving ahead with the 23rd event, scheduled for Oct. 5, oblivious to officials' worries and certain of success for a smaller, folksier festival.
"It's all coming together better than we thought," said Karon Deatherage, co-chairwoman, who began planning the festival about a month ago.
The festival is a boon to local merchants, who do not often count their Saturday customers in the thousands. As many 5,000 visitors have come to festivals in the past.
Main Street will be closed to all but pedestrian traffic. And organizers, who have applied for a permit from town police, hope the street will be filled with vendors.
Fifteen food and craft stands are officially committed to take part. Gay Loscarn, co-chairwoman, expects to have at least 25 vendors. Last year, 40 merchants came to town.
"We want artisans, not flea market things," said Loscarn, who added that the planning "is not too much to handle."
The festival began in the early 1970s as a celebration of town history and heritage. There were few sales pitches and much free merriment, such as racing on antique beds and bobbing for apples. The Sykesville Improvement Association ran the festival and made little profit for its hours of labor.
About four years ago, the Sykesville Business Association managed to turn a profit from the festival for its civic projects, but critics say the event lost its folksy atmosphere.
"Somehow, it became how to make money, and we lost the spirit initially had," Mayor Jonathan S. Herman said.
Councilman Garth Adams said proceeds, if any, should go back to the town, which provides police and maintenance crews all day.
"If the town is expending time and money, shouldn't we have something to offset our costs?" he said.
Town Manager Matthew H. Candland, who is working closely with the organizers, suggests a joint account for the profits that would pay for next year's festival.
The chairwomen are looking to scale back the festival to make it more like those of the past. Besides, they said, they don't have the manpower to stage a bigger festival.
"In the beginning, we did not have a lot of help or response," Deatherage said. "We did it because we hated to let it go."
Gone are the celebrity impersonators, blaring music and carnival acts, which some said were money-makers.
"The festival became so distasteful that some of the town merchants actually closed for the day," Adams said.
Organizers have contracted with a disc jockey, who will play only easy-listening tunes. A Civil War re-enactment group will set up camp along the Patapsco River but won't stage a mock battle. And model railroaders will have an exhibit in the town's Pullman car.
St. Paul's United Methodist Church will work its antique corn popper and serve its legendary apple desserts. The Knights of Columbus will offer the traditional pit beef. Children will be able to stuff scarecrows with straw and paint faces on pumpkins.
"This is not commercial; it has old-time flavor," Loscarn said.
Officials fear that a poorly organized festival would give the town a poor accounting of itself. They might take control of the festival next year.
"I would rather the council took control, rather than scramble around at the last minute," said Councilman Michael Burgoyne. "Planning six weeks before the event is no way to run an event. We will never get quality unless we plan as much as a year ahead."
Herman said he is getting mixed messages from businesses and that he wondered how many support the festival.
"The Sykesville Business Association seems too disjointed and disillusioned to make this a success," Herman said. "We have less than a month, and we are wondering where this is going and what are we doing."
He, too, favors a town takeover, something Loscarn does not think will happen.
"Maybe the town is looking for something as large as Freedom Fun Days," she said. "They just don't have the manpower for something on that big a scale."
Pub Date: 9/11/96