The future of Craig’s premier summer event has been lumped into the ongoing controversy surrounding City Park.
Whittle the Wood, which has been held at City Park since its inception in 2000, was the focus of discussion Tuesday during the Craig City Council meeting.
“Whittle the Wood is the signature event of the summer,” Craig Mayor Terry Carwile said. “If we can’t resolve this issue in a very timely fashion I think we need to consider a move to Loudy-Simpson or some other facility.”
The “issue” at hand stems from failed lease negotiations and, most recently, a failed attempt by the city to purchase the park from Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4265.
Although both parties have voiced an interest in returning to the negotiating table, council members raised concerns about the ability to hammer out a new deal in time to prepare for the event.
“The city has a lot invested in the south end of that park and we need to proceed to make sure that space remains a public park,” council member Don Jones said. “I don’t think we’re going to get it done (in time to prepare for Whittle the Wood), but it’s worth a try.”
Should those attempts fall short again, the city discussed moving Whittle the Wood to Loudy-Simpson or Woodbury.
But council member Byron Willems was quick to point out that this is not the first time the council has discussed moving Whittle the Wood to a new location.
“Realistically, the event has probably outgrown the park,” Willems said. “There’s a lot more room to grow at Woodbury or Loudy-Simpson.
“I’m not opposed at all to moving Whittle the Wood if it’s in the best interest of the event, but the downside is losing that downtown traffic.”
Delbert Knez, owner of the O.P. Sports Bar and Grill located across the street from City Park, doesn’t want to see that foot traffic disappear either.
“I think it would affect us a lot because I’m right here,” Knez said. “The two of them need to get their P’s and Q’s figured out and keep it the way it is.”
Aside from hunting season and the Fireman’s Ball, Knez said he receives some of his best business from Whittle the Wood.
“They can move it if they have to, but it has to stay in town,” Knez said. “Moving it as far out as Loudy could hurt business in Craig overall.”
To get the negotiations rolling, council directed Jim Ferree, Craig city manager, to respond to the VFW’s most recent letter dated Dec. 28, 2011.
Rather than try to negotiate a lease privately as in the past, Ferree recommended hosting a workshop.
“It would be my preference not to have a private, small subcommittee of the city council sit down with a couple members of the VFW lodge, neither of which represents the majority, to meet privately,” Ferree said. “It seems to me it would benefit all of us to get everyone at the table together and start talking about renegotiations of the lease.”
What that lease might look like is anyone’s guess, but certain council members were adamant about discontinuing an unofficial agreement that has allowed the VFW to benefit from free water, sewer and trash services.
“There are some undocumented benefits the VFW has enjoyed for 65 years, and that is unfair,” Riley said. “We don’t give free water, sewer and trash to anyone else and that gives them a direct business advantage over everybody.”
As far as members of the council were aware, none of the city services the VFW receives for free were ever stipulated in past leases. The city has provided those services as a measure of good faith.
But because tax money goes toward park maintenance, Riley said the community has born the brunt of that unspoken arrangement.
According to data compiled by Bill Earley, Craig Public Works director, the VFW’s free water, sewer and trash services have cost taxpayers more than $47,000 during the last 16 years.
“The community has more than 60 years invested in this as well,” Riley said. “That’s (free utilities) not part of anything that was ever deeded to anyone else, and I am wholeheartedly opposed to that.”
Council member Gene Bilodeau said those free services are just another example of the city’s cooperation.
“I think if an outsider came in and looked at what has transpired over the past 60 years, I think a reasonable person would say the City of Craig has been nothing but a good partner,” Bilodeau said.
In a letter to David Walters, VFW post commander, Ferree said a workshop could be scheduled as soon as Jan. 24, prior to city council’s next scheduled meeting.
Walters was not available for comment Friday, but former post commander Mark Wick said next steps would not be decided until after the post’s monthly meeting Jan. 16.
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