After celebrating Franco-American heritage in Biddeford for 27 years, La Kermesse has an uncertain future.
City officials have told the festival’s organizers that it can no longer be held at St. Louis Field because of damage done during last summer’s event and the festival’s apparent inability to reimburse the city for the repairs.
The damage — caused by a combination of heavy rain, trucks, equipment and carnival rides — was so extensive that repairs cost Biddeford more than $25,000 and the field could not be used again until this spring, according to the city.
“It completely demolished the field area,” said Guy Casavant, director of public works. “It turned out to be a big mudhole.”
But displacing La Kermesse means drastically paring down the festival, said Paul Gagne, treasurer of La Kermesse Franco-Americaine de Biddeford, the nonprofit organization that runs the event.
No other location can match the electrical system that the organization installed under the field years ago, Gagne said. Moving to another location in the city would likely lead to a much smaller one-day event without any major entertainment.
La Kermesse, held in late June, typically kicks off with a Thursday block party and a parade the next day to St. Louis Field, where the festivities continue through Sunday. The block party draws as many as 25,000 people, and the festival at St. Louis Field draws a similar number over the three days, Gagne said.
“Right now, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he said.
It’s not the first time La Kermesse has been financially squeezed. Last year, financial issues forced the cancellation of fireworks. Organizers have taken measures like deploying a donation brigade to solicit money at the free block party, and using free labor by inmates from the York County Jail.
Mayor Joanne Twomey said the organization rejected her offer to let La Kermesse be held downtown and to bring in businesspeople to raise money for fireworks. Gagne said, however, that organizers plan to meet with city officials this week.
Twomey said that while the festival has been great for the community, it may be time to rethink the event.
“You can think outside the box,” she said. “Maybe they can bring their equipment downtown — but not on that field.”
St. Louis Field, at Hill and West streets, serves school and recreational programs. It is used for baseball, soccer and lacrosse. Because of last year’s damage, programs for about 400 youngsters had to be moved, Twomey said.
While the damage was unusually severe, use of the field has been interrupted for four to six weeks in other years, according to a letter sent to festival organizers March 22 by Keith Jacques, the city’s attorney. The letter asks La Kermesse to reimburse the city $25,065 within 14 days. Gagne said that is money the organization doesn’t have. In fact, he said, the organization is so cash-strapped that it still owes some vendors from last year.
The advance admission sales that La Kermesse would normally start at about Christmas weren’t done because of the uncertainty about this year’s event, adding to its cash-flow problems.
La Kermesse is holding fundraisers to make up for the shortage of cash. There has already been a casino night, and a maple sugar festival is planned April 16-17 at the Biddeford Arena and Expo Center.
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: [email protected]