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Spencer Residents, Businesses Brace For New Festival Ordinance

Spencer, Indiana

(Seth Tackett, WTIU/WFIU News)

The Spencer town square looks quite different today than it did years ago.

Retail shops, coffee houses and restaurants surround the historic Owen County Courthouse, taking the place of the empty buildings and law offices that were there before.

One of the newer shops on the square is the Juniper Art Gallery, which Jaime Sweany opened a little over a year ago. She says Owen County’s natural beauty was the main reason she decided to invest in her shop.

“I see this as becoming an arts destination,” Sweany says. “Beautiful, natural. We’re close to McCormick’s Creek State Park. We could easily become a Southern Indiana arts destination.”

Juniper Art Gallery owner Jaime Sweany shows reporter Mitch Legan some of the artwork in her gallery on the town square
Juniper Art Gallery owner Jaime Sweany shows reporter Mitch Legan some of the artwork in her gallery on the town square. (Seth Tackett, WFIU/WTIU News)

The other reason was the different festivals and events held on the courthouse square.

“When there is one, my business sees more people that discover me, for one, since I’m new this year,” she says. “And two: my sales are great on any day that there’s an event. So that makes a huge difference to my bottom line and my ability to be successful as a small businessowner here.”

So Sweany became concerned when she heard the county commissioners were considering shutting down special events on the square. Back in August, commissioners said they had received a petition from residents voicing concerns about problems at at least one special event.

People packed the county commissioners meeting on Aug. 19 to find out what was going on.

But when some residents asked for a copy of the petition, what they received instead were form letters describing the Spencer Pride Fest as overly sexual and inappropriate for children.

The letters did not mention the issues Commissioner Gary Burton raised at the meeting.

The letter originated from Morals of America, an anonymous Facebook group whose members believe “the world is in a downward spiral from the lack of good God given morals.” The group’s leader, who won’t identify themselves, denied requests for an interview, citing concern for his or her safety and fear of discrimination.

Spencer Pride is the local LGBTQ advocacy group that has been hosting its annual Pride Fest on the courthouse lawn for the past 12 years.

“People come from all over the Midwest and beyond, I believe, to come to this small rural community that is seen as an accepting, loving community,” Sweany says. “And they love it when they get here and they see all the excitement and all the fun that’s going on in the community. And I think it’s just – for my business, it was the most foot traffic I’d ever had here.”

With a population of about 2,200, Spencer is the smallest town in the United States with a designated LGBTQ center. The one-day Pride Fest brings anywhere from 4-5,000 people to Spencer.

Image of Spencer Pride 2018
(Courtesy of Spencer Pride/Facebook)

“We are an example to other communities that think, ‘Our community is too small, we couldn’t support anything like that’,” says Spencer Pride Director of Fundraising Judi Epp. “And they can look to us to say, ‘Well, if they can do it in Spencer, we have to be able to do it here.’”

With the threat of a festival ban looming, Spencer Pride President Jonathan Balash formed the Spencer Downtown Event Coalition (SDEC). He invited other stakeholders who all worried about the impact a ban would have on the county’s efforts to continue growing its economy.

According to its Facebook page, the SDEC is a group of “like-minded citizens who care deeply about the importance of keeping events thriving in downtown Spencer, Indiana.”

Outside of the Juniper Art Gallery in downtown Spencer
Outside of the Juniper Art Gallery in downtown Spencer. (Seth Tackett, WFIU/WTIU News)

Currently, there’s an ordinance on the books that regulates festivals and events on Owen County property. SDEC provided the commissioners with suggestions on how they could improve the existing ordinance with community input.

But the commissioners proposed their own and didn’t take any of the group's suggestions into account.

The way the ordinance is currently written, nobody would be able to access the courthouse for a special event. It gives the commissioners broad powers, saying they have the final say on special events in the county, not just on county property.

It also defines a special event as “any organized gathering of people for any purpose for a limited period of time which is sponsored by a for-profit or non-profit individual, group, organization, or entity” and says something can be considered a special event if it is “expected to have a visual, noise or other environmental impact upon the immediate vicinity or surrounding area of the event.”

After tremendous pushback from residents, the commissioners voted to table their own proposal to consider the community’s feedback and questions.

But many residents say they believe the commissioners’ new ordinance is unnecessary -- because if the issue is about collecting fees for festivals, that’s already written into the existing ordinance.

“But that ordinance has been neglected by the people who are in charge of it,” says Rob White, board president of the Historic Tivoli Theatre. “For them to come in and say, ‘Oh, well we’ve fixed the ordinance and modernized it; it’s six pages long now’ – if you can’t monitor and maintain and enforce a three-page ordinance, what faith do I have that you’re going to maintain and monitor a six-page ordinance?”

Judi Epp says the first year Spencer Pride was on the courthouse square, she didn’t even have to fill out a form.

“The next year, I was given a form to fill out. It was a two-page form,” Epp says. “The third page is where the fee is. They never gave me that page. I didn’t even know there was a third page until this ordinance conversation started. And I’ve been going to them for 12 years.”

Jaime Sweany says she wishes the commissioners would just enforce the current ordinance so Owen County residents will be able to use the courthouse that they fund.

The Owen County Courthouse. (Seth Tackett, WFIU/WTIU News)

“I absolutely wanna see the courthouse open for events,” Sweany says. “It is the people’s courthouse and it shouldn’t just be used for legal matters and for trials. It should be used for happy purposes as well. It should be used for the community – the community owns it.”

Now, all the people of Owen County can do is wait for the commissioners’ new proposal.

Commissioners President Jeff Brothers said some residents have reached out to the commissioners since they tabled the ordinance, but nobody officially from the Downtown Event Coalition. 

Sweany says despite all of the negativity that has come from the ordinance fiasco, she is amazed how it has brought the community together.

“The revitalization has been about community spirit, as well as buildings and nice sidewalks and lamps and all the beautiful things we’ve done,” Sweany says. “I feel like there has been a growing sense of community that was absent when I lived here in the ‘90s. So it’s really heartening to see that.”

There is no timetable set for the edited proposal.

The Owen County Commissioners will next meet on Nov. 18 at 6 p.m.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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