Port cancels 2024 July Fourth celebration

Officials cite safety concerns; consider hosting smaller, fireworks-free event

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Citing logistics and safety concerns, the Port of Camas-Washougal said this week that it will not host its traditional Fourth of July celebration in 2024.

Instead, Port leaders will explore opportunities to hold a smaller, fireworks-free event or partner with other local agencies to put on a pyrotechnics show at a larger venue.

“Never say never,” Port Chief Executive Officer David Ripp said during a Port Commission meeting held Wednesday, July 19. “But for right now, we’re going to revisit or figure out a different plan and just say, ‘We’re not going to have (the July Fourth event) at the Port next year.’”

During the most recent event, held July 4, at the Port, heavy traffic waylaid the attempts of emergency medical technicians to respond to a woman who had suffered a seizure; the large crowd slowed Port employees’ efforts to assist a boater stranded on the Columbia River; and a driver high-centered their vehicle on a large rock after attempting to take a shortcut through the parking lot at the end of the show, Ripp said.

Port Commissioner Cassi Marshall said she had “mixed feelings” about canceling the event.

“Everywhere I go, I hear, ‘That was a great event. We had so much fun,’” Marshall said. “It is something that the community values. But I totally understand all of these constraints and especially the safety (concerns) that come into effect and the emergency response and those kinds of things. We have to take that very, very seriously.”

Port employees estimate that between 7,000 and 8,000 people attended the most recent July Fourth event, Ripp said, adding that the crowd was too large for the parking area and overwhelmed the 20 Port and city of Washougal employees and 15 local Boy Scouts working the event.

The Port’s facilities director, Eric Platenberg, added that the Boy Scouts left the event early after being “treated poorly by people trying to park.”

“Right now we’ve got 10 acres, roughly, of event space, and 20 acres of parking, and it’s not enough,” Commissioner John Spencer said. “We probably need more like 15 acres of event space and 40 acres for parking — and about 20 more staff members. So we would need 55 acres to actually host the event, and we’d have to double our budget to pay for all the staff.”

The makeshift parking area routinely elicits criticism from attendees, who often complain that exiting the event can take more than an hour due to the massive traffic jam.

“When everybody tries to leave an event at the same time, and they can’t get out quickly, they get angry and mean, and you end up with people fighting,” Port Finance Director Krista Caple said. “We don’t want that on our property.”

Port leaders likely would face an even more challenging parking scenario in 2024, due to the nearby Hyas Point mixed-use development scheduled to break ground in the spring of 2024, on the Port’s makeshift event parking lot.

“The biggest problem, I think, is that we’re at capacity,” Platenberg said. “All the city roads were clogged both ways. (Highway 14) was backed up miles in both directions. People were still trying to get in at 9:30 p.m. because the fireworks didn’t start until 10. So how do we (host the event again in 2024) when we’re losing half our parking?”

Port Commissioner Larry Keister added that Port officials should examine alternatives to its traditional Fourth of July celebration.

“It’s a great way to get people down to the Port, but can we do it in a better way that is more manageable?” Keister said. “We need to look for an alternative location because we could not handle the size of it this year, and next year it would probably be larger.”

“It would be larger next year,” Spencer replied. “That’s the convincing thing for me — smaller space, larger crowd. That’s a safety hazard. Based on everything we’ve said, there’s no reasonable way to make it work. What if we were to say, ‘There will be no parking? If you want to (attend), you have to walk or bus,’ and then we work with C-TRAN to figure out a busing system? The only way I see to do it is shuttling (people in) from multiple spots, but you’ve still got a huge crowd-control issue.”

Port leaders said they would still like to host some form of a community event in 2024.

“I love the idea of having a concert where people can come and go as they please and everyone’s not leaving right at the same time,” Caple said. “We could have vendors for food and maybe vendors like a Saturday market.”

Spencer said he believes Port leaders should consider talking to other officials in Camas, Washougal and Clark County about the possibility of joining forces to present a fireworks event at the Clark County Fairgrounds.

“The fairgrounds are actually designed to handle that much traffic all at once,” Spencer said. “And they’ve got tons of open space.”

Camas City Councilwoman Bonnie Carter suggested Camas and Washougal leaders could consider creating a new Independence Day event with a popular fireworks alternative, such as lighted drones or lasers.

“There are a lot of options,” Carter said. “But I like the idea of finding a countywide option because we could defray some of the costs. We could get other entities and municipalities to contribute. I think we should talk to other entities and see if we can partner with them. We need to consider something, because we all need to be in this together.”

Washougal Mayor David Stuebe said he was disappointed with decision, but understood the Port officials’ concerns.

“I think (the event is) only going to get bigger, and with the landscape changing, with Ninebark (Apartments) and Roy Kim’s project coming in, you guys (are right to be) concerned,” Stuebe told the Port commissioners. “I do like the option of turning it into maybe a county thing. I can easily talk to the other mayors about that and see what they think. You guys outgrew it. With the city’s support, maybe we can find a new venue.”