Fiddlers Convention 2018

From left, Mark Martin, Steve King, Wes Allen and Shan Tidwell perform for passersby at the 52nd Annual Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention. The Convention, held each October on the campus of Athens State University, brings between 20,000 and 30,000 attendees. Those visitors stay in area hotel rooms and RV parks and dine in local restaurants and shop at local stores, which tourism officials say helps the local economy and provides jobs.

Athens will be hopping in October, with three major festivals planned for the month.

With thousands of festival-goers milling about, residents may be glad to know officials are taking precautions to handle mass shootings or other outbursts from unstable or intoxicated participants.

Many of us grew up in an age when mass shootings at annual events were unheard of. Those days have gone. In July, a mass shooting occurred at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California, resulting in four deaths, including the gunman, and 13 other injuries. The festival was on the angry shooter's list of potential targets, and that was the event he chose.

"In this day and age, you have to consider it," said Wayne Kuykendall, organizer of the 13th annual Athens Storytelling Festival, which will be Oct. 22-26 this year. "It's unfortunate, but you have to."

Last year, the Alabama Legislature paid for 7,500 students in public and private schools to attend the festival for free. During school hours, Athens police officers provided general oversight as well as traffic control for the buses that hauled the kids to The Square.

Kuykendall said he plans to talk to police about ways to ensure safety during other hours of the festival, too.

Tere Richardson, director of Athens Main Street, which plans the annual Athens Grease Festival, said festival organizers "absolutely" have security measures in place for the event. This year's festival will be held 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 19 in downtown Athens.

"We employ off-duty officers to help us and we review with (Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson) on how to layout the festival, including the entrances and exits," Richardson said. "He reviews the plans at several points."

In addition to police oversight in planning and holding the event, those who volunteer to help with the festival are taught to be vigilant.

"Our volunteers are all instructed to be on the lookout for anything questionable and to keep an eye on the crowd," Richardson said.

No fiddlin' around

Johnson said while officers provide security at many events, the event that most concerns him is the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention, which will be Oct. 3-5 at Athens State University this year.

Nothing bad has ever happened at the convention, which is now in its 53rd year, but the sheer number of people, including many out-of-towners, can be a concern.

"Fiddlers (Convention) brings more people to town than anything else going on, including a lot of people from out of town," the police chief said. "The college does a good job with security, which includes our officers and others they hire. Last year, we totally restructured how we worked with them and improved the process to be able to respond better. It really worked well. Everything else, we kind of evaluate per event based on crowd expectation and go from there."

He said the Emergency Management Agency had a command post last year. There was a dispatch center for calls, restricted traffic and a camera system, the chief said. He declined to reveal other security measures in place.

He said the presence of more people outside the area is a concern simply because police do not know them.

"We have people we don't know and a lot going on in a confined space," Johnson said. "99.9% won't have a problem, but that one-tenth will. Or, they are on something or on liquor and you don't know what they are going to do."

He said if the festival is a family event, police will not tolerate anyone who is intoxicated. They will be arrested, he said.

Rick Mould, organizer of the Fiddlers Convention, could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

Reporter

Reporter for News Courier since 2006.