Friday February 15th, 2019 2:39PM

UPDATE: SoWo-n't be approved in Helen for 2016

By Rob Moore Reporter
  Contact Editor

HELEN - While the event is a year away, Southern Worthersee (SoWo) won't be granted a permit to hold its event in Helen in 2016.

About 50 people filled the Helen City Commission meeting audience Tuesday afternoon, many speaking about SoWo.

Some shared problems they had with the event, which set a record for the largest crowd in White County. Others said the economic boost makes up for the slow winter months their businesses endured.

A couple of residents and business owners made emotional pleas to city leaders, asking them to ban future SoWo events because of violence, traffic problems, damage and other associated issues.

Lauren Fain of A-1 Vacation Rentals was one of those who spoke in favor of allowing SoWo to return.

"I think that most people that come to this event are here for the cars - they are car enthusiasts," Fain said. "Then you've got 20 percent where Daddy bought their car, paid for them to be here, and they don't care what they destroy."

Fain and others said that small percentage is the group that causes trouble during the event. Actual SoWo participants are not the problem.

"I have several properties, and not one was damaged," Fain said. "Most of them, I'd say 90 percent of them, were left like nobody even stayed in them. They followed the rules exactly."

Others insisted the amount of crimes, including some violent crimes, should automatically prompt the city to deny permission for future SoWo events.

Helen Police Sgt. Brian Stephens fielded questions from city commissioners about preparedness and crimes.

"As far as being prepared, we worked on this three months or four months prior to them ever getting close to town," Stephens said. "Every contingency plan was put into place. We did hire extra officers from the county - we hired as many deputies that were available. We contacted Georgia State Patrol and we had 14 state troopers assigned to us."

Stephens said things went well Thursday, Friday and into Saturday afternoon. Saturday night was when things turned bad.

"I'm not saying all of SoWo is bad," Stephens said. "I'm saying it's a small percentage that is ruining it for everybody and putting the town in danger, along with our citizens and along with our officers."

Stephens told of a towing operator whose truck was almost overturned by the unruly crowd.

"The crowd rushed it and actually trapped him inside and wouldn't allow him to exit the vehicle, and was attempting to flip the vehicle," Stephens said. "We received calls where another gentleman was locked inside his truck and they busted the windows out and were attempting to turn his vehicle over."

There also were other serious issues.

"We did deal with weapons," Stephens said. "We made some arrests where weapons were pulled within the crowds. We had a sexual assault that had been reported. We had a kidnapping that had been reported, so we're not dealing with just burnouts."

Mayor Dona K. Burke said money made doesn't make up for the problems associated with such a large-scale event.

"For all these people that did make money, if that was either you or your child that ended up being sexually assaulted or something like that, I think you may say 'ok I think that's enough'," Burke said.

A couple of residents likened Saturday night at SoWo to being in Ferguson, Mo., saying they feared someone might set buildings on fire or widespread violence could erupt.

"Our officers did experience some beer bottles being thrown at them," Stephens said. "There was a rock thrown through the patrol car window. It missed the officer driving and struck his passenger - his partner. No major injuries, but it could have been."

Audience members asked about bringing in more law enforcement next year, but Commissioner Helen Wilkins said she's not sure what the city could do short of bringing in the National Guard.

Stephens agreed that additional law enforcement would simply result in more arrests, likely not a more orderly event.

"Just that small percentage has grown so much that we're not capable of handling it," Stephens said. "There was burnouts, there was traffic violations. The problem was that the police department was stretched beyond its limitations. We were at posts to keep problems from happening, and we did have some serious problems within SoWo."

City officials expressed disappointment that troopers from the Georgia State Patrol left the event at a crucial time.

"The State Patrol came up and made two passes, contacted their captain, and their captain asked them to go ahead and leave for their safety," Stephens said. "That left four officers for the 3,000 people down here. The other officers were at posts trying to hold their crowds back."

The Georgia State Patrol has been contacted and is expected to release a statement today.

"It's not that we're against SoWo," Stephens said. "We're not against anything - we're not against people making money. What we are for is the safety of the town and the safety of the citizens. It's just gotten to a point to where the crowds are so large that we're not able to handle them. The small percentage that comes in has grown, and those are the ones we can't do anything with."

Some merchants argued the revenue generated by the crowds who attend SoWo make it worth the headaches.

"I would like to say that if your reason for wanting to do this is because of revenue it brings in, then somewhere along the way you've lost your moral compass," said one merchant located just south of Helen. "To even consider 'well gosh we can bring them back in if we can get more cops in here', that is the most insane thing I've ever heard!"

Commissioner Jeff Ash said the city needs to rewrite its script, noting Helen should be the attraction for visitors.

"We are the event - the entire business community," Ash said. "Whether you're in the beer business, the bed business or retail business, we cannot afford to have any more people in this community than we are physically able to take care of with our standard [police] force. When you start hiring 40 police officers to conduct operations for three days and you really needed 80, you're in the wrong business.

"I'm opposed to it," Ash said. "I will flat tell you I'm opposed to SoWo at this level."

Following the meeting, Burke discussed the commission's decision.

"The city of Helen is not big enough to host 23,000 people in any event, much less a SoWo event," Burke said. "When it comes to the safety of the people, the residents, the merchants and even other tourists going through town, it isn't something we need. We don't need to be known for that type of event, so we have voted not to have it."

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  • Associated Tags: Helen City Commission, Southern Worthersee, SoWo 2015, SoWo 2016
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