Flowertown throngs spur call for change

“It was the most people I’ve ever seen,” Summerville Fire Chief Mac Melfi said of the attendance at this year’s Flowertown Festival.

SUMMERVILLE -- The flourishing Flowertown Festival may have outgrown itself.

Summerville's police and fire chiefs are calling for changes in how the annual arts and crafts festival is handled because parked cars were packed so tightly that ambulances or firetrucks wouldn't have been able to get down the narrow, historic-district streets around Azalea Park on April 2.

Officials with the Summerville YMCA, which holds the festival as a fundraiser, will meet with the chiefs Friday, the first in a series of brainstorming meetings to look for solutions. But it won't be easy.

During this year's festival, parked cars were so tight in some spots, a golf cart couldn't get past. Parked cars and jammed traffic blocked thoroughfares, such as Central Avenue. One observer estimated the Saturday crowd at 200,000, the number of people the three-day festival is said to average per year. The chiefs said they won't be able to sign off on a future festival unless safety improvements are made.

"It was the most people I've ever seen," said Fire Chief Mac Melfi.

Police Chief Bruce Owens said the congestion had bothered him for the past several years, but this year it alarmed him.

"People were parking where we normally don't see parking. If your house was there and caught fire, a firetruck couldn't get there in time. If you had a heart attack, an ambulance couldn't get there in time," he said. Even an emergency evacuation of the festival itself would have been problematic, and that has been done successfully in the past when storms came up suddenly, the chiefs said.

"It's not that it can't be fixed. Just try to find a way to keep it safe for the festival and the people who live nearby, that's all we're trying to do," Melfi said.

But there's no ready fix.

Now in its 39th year, the fest has wound its way through an uneasy relationship with its neighbors in the quiet, upscale residential district as it has grown. Moving is not in the cards. Its popularity is closely tied with the shady park and its seasonal azalea bloom. Too heavy a hand controlling it one way or the other could alienate residents or festivalgoers.

Each solution proposed so far comes with a set of its own problems. Off-site parking and shuttle service is already in place, used by a small number of festivalgoers. Finding space to put more cars would be tough, and street parking in the district is a long-ingrained custom among festivalgoers. Restricting parking to one side of a street would have to be enforced. The town doesn't want to be writing traffic tickets or towing off festival patrons.

Opening up more of the three-block-size park to the festival and parking would only provide so much more space and could damage its floral ambiance.

"I don't want to say yes," said Liz Graham, YMCA marketing director, when asked if the festival had gotten too big to be handled. "I feel we can work with the police and fire chief and come up with a way to work together." Larger festivals are held successfully in cities across the country, she said. "If they can do it, we can do it, too."