Higher costs, changing attitudes rain on local parades

No baton twirlers or high school bands will march along Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta this Fourth of July.

The television station that sponsored and aired the "Salute 2 America" Independence Day parade canceled the 47-year-old tradition this year, citing changing attitudes. Fewer families want to trek downtown in the summer heat, said Bill Hoffman, WSB general manager.

"We could feel that the attendance was off," he said. "People want to stay cocooned in their neighborhood."

Parades across the country, in fact, are being snuffed out by poor attendance, rising insurance costs and a shortage of volunteers. Hometown parades for Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and other occasions face increasing competition from amusement parks, movies and other family-oriented attractions.

"Some of these community parades have more people in them than watching them," said pop culture expert Robert J. Thompson at Syracuse University in New York. "Once upon a time, parades were one of a few big entertainment things, especially for a small town."

For many local festivals, problems began after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. That's when the cost of insuring public events skyrocketed, and many cities started shifting money into public safety efforts rather than community events. Some cities and counties increased permit fees and raised the price for police, fire and cleanup services, said Steve Schmader, president of the International Festivals and Events Association in Boise, Idaho.

Recent economic woes and corporate downsizing have made things even tougher for festival organizers, who often rely on company sponsorships to offset costs.

More than 100 parades have folded since Sept. 11, according to a database search of newspaper archives.

"We certainly felt Sept. 11 at my company," said Scott VanKirk, owner of the Indianapolis-based ExpoDesign, which manufactures floats. Since then, he has broadened the company's services to reduce its reliance on parades.

Money woes killed the St. Patrick's Day parade in Hollywood, Fla., this year. When city officials decided for the first time to charge $16,000 for services related to the parade, organizer Mike Saffran called it quits.

His organization, The Hibernians of Hollywood, had struggled to pay the parade's $20,000 tab the year before. An additional $16,000 for city services would have bankrupted the group, which has sponsored the parade since 1998, he said.

The organizers of another St. Patrick's Day parade, in Bay City, Mich., say that parade is in limbo after they wiped out their bank accounts to put on this year's event. Volunteer Tom Newsham said insurance costs for the parade, which attracts about 45,000 people each year, quadrupled after Sept. 11.

"It's just more of a struggle," Newsham said. "What used to cost $7,000 to $8,000 now costs $35,000."

The successful Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York has an almost "variety show" feel, featuring Broadway dancers and big-name entertainers, Thompson noted. Other successful parades, such as the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, in Washington, D.C., benefit from an affiliation with a nationally known event that attracts thousands of out-of-towners. The more local pleasures of the small-town parade are no longer such a draw.

"A kid today doesn't dream about marching in a parade," said Thompson.

As more Americans move from place to place, fewer have long-term ties to a community, which also reduces parade attendance and participation, he said.

Organizers of a 41-year-old festival in West Allis, Wis., pulled the plug last year because of shrinking crowds and profits. Western Days, held over Father's Day weekend, included a parade and carnival, said T.J. Meyers-Jansky, first vice president of West Allis Charities, which ran the festival.

"People are being more choosy about what they spend their money on," she said. "We started figuring out it doesn't hold the value to the community it used to."

As volunteers grew older, the organization had trouble replacing them.

"They got pooped out," she said. "Many have retired or moved away."

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