In 2001, Pacific realtor John Heger, who was Chamber of Commerce president at the time, had an idea to create a safe trick-or-treat venue in the city park.
In his imagination, businesses and civic groups would each build their own little haunted house or witches flight. The haunted venues would be set up around the park inner circle. The Chamber would buy candy for booth operators to hand out as trick-or-treaters made their way around the circle.
The result went far beyond anything John envisioned. First-year booths were spectacular. The park board recreated the Land of Oz, with Dorothy, Toto, the scarecrow and the cowardly lion that could be reached down a yellow brick road. One business created Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, complete with eerie snaps of electricity and a hospital bed with a gauze-wrapped monster on it that sprang to life when a particular light crackled.
John Heger got it right. Kids love to be scared on Halloween. And the city park was a safe place for a good scare. A couple of years later, John created a cornfield with dead stalks standing in staggered rows covered with cobwebs and bathed in artificial smoke. As trick-or-treaters stepped into the path, a series of eerie sounds and moans erupted.
It was a trick-or-treaters’ dream come true — make believe on a grand scale. There was no blood or gore but lots of ways to get kids to scream in fright.
Another surprise in that first Spookfest was the number of visitors who came. By 5:15 p.m. youngsters dressed in costume were already in line at the entrance to the park circle. That first year the Chamber had to go back to Wal-Mart twice to buy more candy. In the first 45 minutes the Chamber gave out all 1,600 candied apples meant to count the kids. The number of visitors, kids and parents, was estimated at 4,000.
Every year since, the crowds have continued to come. In recent years the tourism tax paid for the candy, relieving the Chamber of that expense. The Chamber reimbursed for candy — $1,722 in 2009, $1,670 in 2010 and $2,265 in 2011.
But the early Spookfest was its own worst enemy, setting the creativity bar so high that it could not be met year after year. Recently, organizers have noticed that haunted houses are giving way to covered canopies and tables with adults behind them handing out candy.
Now the Chamber says Spookfest has run its course and it is time to rethink the program. As the economy waned, some businesses said they couldn’t afford to spend funds to build a fancy booth and pay their employees to work the event.
An email sent to Chamber members last week asked them to consider participating in a different kind of Halloween celebration. Businesses would place a pumpkin, provided by the Chamber, on their front door or window to alert visitors that they could find candy there. Businesses would buy their own candy and remain open for a couple of hours so kids could come by and collect it.
It is understandable that businesses are being more conservative in their community support, but I have to tell you . . . Spookfest was an effective, safe, trick-or-treat event that brought thousands of visitors to Pacific — it made Pacific look like an inviting place.
The city also had costs, sending public works employees to the park to help booth operators that needed electricity or water. Every police officer in the Pacific Police Department worked on Spookfest, directing traffic and managing crowds.
The Meramec Ambulance District and Pacific Fire District also sent their crews to the park for the evening, in case of an emergency.
The question that appears to face the Chamber now is whether or not Spookfest is something that should be continued in some fashion other than the booths in the park. So they came up with the pumpkins on the business door idea.
It was the wrong question. And no matter how the members answer, it’s the wrong program.
Pacific retail businesses are clustered in several distinct areas, West Osage, East Osage, downtown (St. Louis and First streets). Other businesses are located on Rose Lane and in the industrial parks.
To make this work, parents would have to load their kids in the family vehicle and drive to these strip malls or individual business addresses, let the kids hop out of the vehicle and go inside. Of course, parents would accompany toddlers, but there are pre-teen and teen years where kids are too young to drive, but old enough to go into a store for Halloween candy without parents. In the malls they could go door to door without getting back in the car or SUV. This means navigating dark parking lots.
This program would put kids — many dressed in costumes that impair their vision — right back on the street, the very thing Spookfest was designed to prevent.
“Spookfest was meant to create a safe place for kids to trick-or-treat,” said Keith Bruns, one Chamber director and constant Spookfest supporter who was asked about the new idea over dinner. “Safety of the kids comes first with me.”
My best judgment tells me that some parents would say no to the idea of caravanning between businesses, for the opportunity to pick up hands full of candy. They would just be willing to walk the kids around their own neighborhood or subdivision for an old-fashioned trick-or-treat.
The Chamber newsletter said the pumpkin-on-the-door program could be a way to get people into the business, giving businesses a marketing advantage. Maybe it would get some people in. But the potential harm seems to outweigh the potential good.
If the Chamber Spookfest is no longer economically or organizationally viable — I would not argue either of those points — they should make a clean break and just say they will no longer host the program.
There was one bright aspect to this otherwise gloomy announcement. The Chamber said if anyone had other ideas for a Halloween event in our community to please let the Chamber know.
And an idea, after all, is just a feeling that something is possible. That’s how the whole thing got started. One person had an idea that Halloween offered our community spooky possibilities. Think about it.
Pauline Masson can be reached at email@example.com or 314-805-9800.