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Sonoma Community Center wants to pass on Fourth of July parade

What do other towns do?

Alameda’s Fourth of July Parade is one of the largest and longest in the nation, with 190 floats, and there is no fee to enter. The volunteer chair of the organizing foundation said that the parade costs $25,000 to produce, all of which is raised from local businesses. The City of Alameda donates day-off police, fire and public works staff. Close to 60,000 people attend each year.

Organizers of the Bristol, Rhode Island, parade that tops Travel & Leisure’s best Fourth of July parade’s list said that their parade costs more than $350,000 to put on, not including day-of-parade city staff time. The 320 –year-old-parade is organized by a committee of city-appointed volunteers who work year around to bring in sponsors to cover the costs. More than 200,000 people attend each year.

Citing concerns that Sonoma’s Fourth of July parade has grown too large and too costly for the Sonoma Community Center to continue running it, SCC officials are seeking a new sponsor or organizing agency for the popular annual event.

While the Community Center has organized the parade – officially Sonoma’s Old Fashioned Fourth of July Parade and Celebration – since 1963, SCC Executive Director Toni Castrone said the parade has grown so much in scope and complexity that producing it finds the SCC’s resources increasingly pulled away from its core programs.  

“The parade has become a nationally recognized event with more than 10,000 attendees,” said Castrone. “It takes an enormous amount of resources to manage, and the liability has increased beyond our comfort level.”

Castrone also pointed out that the Center lacks reliable and sufficient funds to put on the annual parade, which costs in excess of $55,000 each year.

While concerns over the SCC’s ability to continue staging the event have lingered in recent years, this week’s announcement from the Community Center was spurred by news of the City of Sonoma’s new policy on community grants – grants which SCC officials have relied upon in recent years to make the parade financially feasible. The new policy going forward will limit City grants to local nonprofits to $25,000 and nonprofits are only eligible for two years in a row.

Since 2008, the SCC was one of four large local nonprofits – referred to as Tier 1 nonprofits – which received annual funding from the city to assume responsibility for various projects which served the greater city good. The SCC and its Fourth of July Parade had been among the beneficiaries, as were the Sonoma Ecology Center, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley and Vintage House senior center.

“The city’s new policy means there is no guaranteed money for the parade,” said Castrone. “And because the parade isn’t related to the Community Center’s core mission, we just can’t afford to continue to lose money on it year after year.”

The new Community Grant Program presents a unique change in how the city supports local nonprofits – providing great opportunity for many local groups, but fewer assurances to the former Tier 1 nonprofits. In past years, the Tier One nonprofits divvied up the lion’s share of grant funds – which last year totalled about $190,000, or equal to 1.5 percent of the General Fund revenue. Now, dispensing with the Tier 1 designation, all local nonprofits – in operation for at least two years – must apply for a portion of the approximately $190,000 pot.

But even under the Tier 1 system, funding from the City would typically only cover half of the cost of putting on the parade, said Castrone. “It doesn’t make sense for us to continue to dedicate hundreds of hours of staff time to fundraising for this event at the expense of other programs that are more important to our core mission and more critical to our survival.”

Castrone also suggested that many locals don’t realize that the Community Center staff and its volunteers organize the parade – many residents simply assume it’s a city production. In many cities, Fourth of July parades are put on by an organizing volunteer committee or foundation.

What do other towns do?

Alameda’s Fourth of July Parade is one of the largest and longest in the nation, with 190 floats, and there is no fee to enter. The volunteer chair of the organizing foundation said that the parade costs $25,000 to produce, all of which is raised from local businesses. The City of Alameda donates day-off police, fire and public works staff. Close to 60,000 people attend each year.

Organizers of the Bristol, Rhode Island, parade that tops Travel & Leisure’s best Fourth of July parade’s list said that their parade costs more than $350,000 to put on, not including day-of-parade city staff time. The 320 –year-old-parade is organized by a committee of city-appointed volunteers who work year around to bring in sponsors to cover the costs. More than 200,000 people attend each year.

In a press statement, Sonoma Mayor Laurie Gallian described the City as “a valiant supporter of the parade” throughout the years.

“Now we must all work together in finding a new leader for this hallmark event,” said Gallian. “We thank (the Community Center) for all that they have done over the years and know that Sonoma’s dedicated volunteerism will shine through for the future. The City looks forward to supporting the new parade leadership group.”

While the SCC would like to hand off the reins to the parade to a committee or other local organization as soon as possible, Community Center officials have agreed to make 2016 a transition year.

“Because this event is important to us and to the community, we’re willing for this final year to partner or consult with a new organization that wants to take the parade and can afford to front the money,” said Castrone.

Castrone stressed that the Community Center struggles with close to $120,000 in annual building-maintenance costs, and relies on grants and fundraising to make its programs affordable for the community.

Castrone said that in the coming weeks, the Center will hold meetings with interested parties to discuss the situation, and brainstorm for ideas on how to steward the beloved community event into the future. “We’ll keep the public informed,” she said.

Contact Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.