By JASON STARR
Raftapalooza, a 3,000-person floating party in outer Malletts Bay, is officially unwanted in Colchester.
In the leadup to this year’s event this Saturday, police heads and town administrators publicized their intention to exile the gathering, now in its fourth year. But last Tuesday, selectboard member Marc Landry challenged their assumptions.
“Is there any way we can turn this into a positive event for the town?” Landry asked after Lt. Jeff Barton explained the police department’s objections.
Barton sighed, sat back in his chair and paused.
“I’m open to suggestions,” he said.
“We have a lot of people who are feeling good about something that is happening in Colchester,” Landry continued. “Other communities would probably look to their economic development people to bring on things like this. And we’re pushing back.
“Is it possible [we encourage it] instead of shutting the door?”
Raftapalooza organizer Jeremy Dewyea has already decided the event should move on from Colchester. Organized simply as a party on water with music, it has seen exponential Facebook-fueled growth. Dewyea is preparing for 3,000 attendees Saturday.
Thayer Beach, with its minimal parking and poor emergency vehicle access, is no longer a suitable venue, he said.
“Because of the inability to get vehicles down there, the event has outgrown the area,” Dewyea said. “With the amount of people, the chances something could go wrong are fairly high, and you can’t immediately access it.
“I understand [the police department’s] perspective. I am working with them. Their resources are part of what handles it,” he continued.
Although the event takes place outside of town borders in federally regulated water, the town’s police and rescue squad patrol Malletts Bay and are obligated to ensure the event’s safety, town manager Dawn Francis said.
“There is an excessive amount of drinking that takes place,” she said. “You could very easily have someone slip off the side of a boat and no one really pay attention. We are the rescue and emergency responders who would try to get the person out of the lake … We are trying to discourage [the event] just because of the impact on the community that we just don’t have the resources for.”
Still, Francis asked during last Tuesday’s selectboard meeting if the town should change its tune on Raftapalooza and encourage the event.
“Yes,” Landry said.
“We are not against fun,” board chairwoman Nadine Scibek added. “We like fun.”
Francis agreed to keep an open mind, depending how this weekend plays out.
Dewyea is already thinking about new locations and has his eyes on Sand Bar State Park in his hometown of Milton, where there’s ample parking and emergency vehicle access.
He’s still open to keeping Raftapalooza in Colchester, however. The original reasons for choosing Thayer Beach remain: It is protected from the prevailing south summer winds and is a hub of Lake Champlain’s boating community.
“I would love to keep the event in Colchester,” he said. “If we can come to terms and make it happen so it stays there, that is great for all involved. The potential to have a great event and bring a lot of money into the area is really good, but there’s a lot things that need to be covered to get to that point.”
Francis said she received about six citizen complaints after last year’s event. One concern is trash left behind at the Rossetti Natural Area, the only public access to Thayer Beach.
Dewyea is committed to a comprehensive beach cleanup Sunday, he said. He’s also received Colchester High School’s permission to use its parking lot with shuttle buses to Rossetti.
Additionally, the event is permitted with the U.S. Coast Guard and has a written safety plan for the first time. Dewyea has also organized an online fundraising campaign that has netted $5,000 to contribute to the cost of local police and rescue coverage.
“This year is really going to change people’s perspective on the event,” Dewyea said.
Said Barton: “We will have multiple agencies on the water and on the shore, and we will do everything we can to make this a very safe event.”