BIDDEFORD — City Manager Jim Bennett says he is the process of organizing a committee to explore the possibility of changing the location and dates of the La Kermesse Franco- Americaine Festival.

The four-day festival started in 1982 to celebrate the city’s Franco-American heritage. It was held on St. Louis Field until 2010, when it was moved to the Biddeford Ice Arena, before being moved downtown. The city told festival organizers to move La Kermesse off St. Louis Field after it caused $25,000 in damages there in 2009; the city ended up paying for the repairs.

Most recently, in 2014, the festival moved to the field at Biddeford Middle School. But now, facing problems with lighting and drainage at that location, some feel it’s time to bring La Kermesse back to St. Louis Field, which has a drainage line and lighting system.

“It’s been really nice being back on a field,” Jessica Quattrone, president of the La Kermesse Board of Directors, said at a Sept. 3 Capital Projects Committee meeting. “It’s been really nice. It’s just not the right field, and for us, we really just want to go home, that’s the way it feels to us.”

Quattrone said drainage has been a major issue at the middle school location. This year, festival organizers were forced to cancel the last day’s events because heavy rain caused water to pool on the field.

“Any little bit of rain on that field over by the middle school (and) you get not just little puddles but you get like a foot of puddles … lakes,” she said. “We had to literally dig ourselves out three times in just the one week leading up to the festival.”

But Public Works Director Guy Casavant warned committee members that moving the festival back to St. Louis Field would come with risks.

“If you’re willing to take the risk, that’s fine, but do it with your eyes open, that’s all I suggest,” he said. “I’m not advocating one way or another. … (Damage like in 2009) could never happen again or it could happen again the very first time you put them back on the field.”

Similarly, Carl Walsh, director of the city’s Recreation Department, said the damage six years ago was so substantial that it took “a good year” before the field was usable again, and that interfered with the schedules of the various sports teams, including the Biddeford High School soccer team, that play there.

“There’s a very short window of opportunity where that field is not being used,” said Walsh. “To give a field some rest is also important so that things can regenerate and the field can be healthy long-term.”

Because rainy weather often contributes to more damage of the festival site, the committee Bennett organizes will also explore the possibility of changing the dates of La Kermesse to a drier time of year than June. Quattrone said the festival has traditionally been held in June to coincide with a French- Canadian holiday.

Committee member Ben Neveux, who said he was not opposed to moving the festival back to St. Louis Field, also suggested the end of July as a new time to coincide with the annual Lobster Bowl at Waterhouse Field. “Your potential crowd would just be huge for you and the weather’s usually pretty good around that date,” he said.

But pushing the dates of the festival back would only bring it closer to the start of fall athletics, Walsh indicated.

John Bubier, who was Biddeford’s city manager from 2005 to August of this year, said Thursday that he would be wary of changing the festival’s dates, considering how many other summer festivals there are throughout Maine.

“(La Kermesse has) theoretically ‘owned’ that date statewide,” he said. “Changing dates puts them in conflict with some of the other major events I would suspect.”

Bubier said he also suspects the festival stands to see an increase in revenues if they moved it back to St. Louis Field, where alcohol can be sold.

Mayor Alan Casavant said in an email Thursday that he found the festival to be a “big success” at the middle school this year, as it seemed more familyfriendly than in the past.

“Moving back to St. Louis Field is intriguing,” he added, “but there would have to be a very realistic, well-conceived plan to protect the field from any significant damage. I think that the idea is worth a conversation.”

Bennett said he hopes to form a committee in the next 30-60 days, which will discuss the issue and hopefully come up with a “winwin” solution. One solution Bennett suggested was breaking the festival up into different events at different locations over the course of its four days.

“Maybe we take a look at potentially having an event or two in the downtown area and we literally shut down the street for a couple of days and … begin to celebrate some of the things happening down there,” he said.

— Staff Writer Angelo J. Verzoni can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or [email protected]

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