HELEN — Are area Independence Day celebrations outgrowing the communities that host them?
In Helen, some merchants are saying the city is being paralyzed by the crowds who arrive and “camp out” for the day in the city to get a good spot to view the city’s 20-minute fireworks display.
As the state’s third most-visited tourist destination, Helen must deal with the traffic, crowds and associated incidents with only about a dozen police officers.
Contingency plans are in place to multiply that law enforcement presence in the event of an emergency, but still some merchants say the city needs to redirect the money spent on the fireworks and related personnel to bringing tourists to town during the slow season.
Ron Turner, owner of Paul’s Steakhouse, said the traffic after the fireworks display doesn’t move, meaning people trying to get through the city are unable to do so — even elderly visitors trying to drive only a few hundred feet from a restaurant to a hotel.
Helen Police Chief Brian Stephens said the officers in place after this year’s fireworks display got traffic cleared out of town in record time, about an hour.
Still, all traffic entering or leaving the city depends on Ga. 75, a state highway with center turn lane that runs through the center of town and contours its two lanes to the Chattahoochee River in sharp curves leaving Helen on each end.
“There’s really not a whole lot you can do about it,” Stephens said of the delay in getting the thousands of visitors out of town after the fireworks are over.
Turner insisted the city will be full on Independence Day, whether or not there are fireworks, but said the city will be able to manage those crowds the same as it does on Memorial Day and Labor Day.
“There again, if you cut the fireworks out, take that money and put it toward Christmas, then it would run just like Memorial Day weekend — 15 or 20 minutes max,” Turner told officials. “Labor Day weekend — 15, 20, 30 minutes max. It would not gridlock this town. This town has been growing for the last 30 years. We have to make changes. You have to see that. What if you get another 3,000 people coming in on top of what we’ve got coming in now on the Fourth of July just to see the fireworks? They can’t get a motel. The hotels are full.”
Helen and just outside town have tubing, a water park, ziplines, new escape rooms, new Pedal Pub operation, shopping, dining, and an active arts and heritage center, among other attractions. By next year, the new mountain coaster will be in operation beside Helen City Hall on Main Street, so Turner said there is plenty to keep families busy without the need for a city-sponsored fireworks display.
Former Mayor Fred Garmon also spoke out in favor of enhancing the city’s Christmas displays since those bring visitors to the city over a six-week period when tourism traditionally has not been as strong. He agreed spending thousands of dollars on a minutes-long fireworks detail, plus paying for all the required extra personnel, could be better spent on enhancing the Alpine Village’s appeal during the Christmas season.
“It’s certainly a legitimate recommendation,” Mayor Jeff Ash told AccessWDUN. “Is the fireworks [display] good for us, or is it bad for us? The only way to do that is to take our time, get feedback from our business owners and our hotels. Our hotels create more population than our residences do.”
During the meeting, City Manager Jerry Elkins said he wants to see the residents of White County be able to enjoy a fireworks display, but he noted Helen may no longer be the best place for that to happen.
Elkins said the city would gladly assist White County and the City of Cleveland with funding an alternative event.
“We’ll see how it works out, but we want to be fair to our businesspeople, fair to ourselves,” Ash said. “We enjoy doing good things for the county and, as the city manager even stated, we would be happy to co-op with Cleveland and White County on a massive fireworks [display] for the people of White County.”
Ash said his stress level was heightened on Independence Day this year because of the volume of people who flocked into Helen for the fireworks.
“We’re real proud that we’re able to put on something that the locals can enjoy, but at some point in time that particular event, or events, can overload your infrastructure to where you can not properly police it, your EMS can not handle it —and it is fireworks, which is a dangerous item to play with.”
Currently, the fireworks are fired from private property across the Chattahoochee River from the business portion of town.
“We’re lucky we were able to discharge those away from the general public,” Ash said. “If we ever lose that opportunity, they certainly will never be held again because we don’t have an adequate place.”
In the meantime, Ash and other city leaders want to hear from the city’s businesses, including restaurants, hotels and shops, and its residents before making a determination about whether the city will continue to contract for a fireworks display on Independence Day in future years.
“That’s about all we can do is investigate and make that determination,” Ash said. “At least we’ve got 50 more weeks to decide.”