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Wildwood looks to fill gap left by annual BBQ Bash

The city of Wildwood is scrambling to replace one of its most popular events. The annual Wildwood BBQ Bash won’t be happening this year, at least not the way it has over the past 15 years.

“Although nothing can replace a large, specialty event like the Wildwood BBQ Bash, ideas have been offered for consideration to fill that void in the city’s fall schedule,” Director of Planning and Parks Joe Vujnich wrote in a memorandum presented at the council’s Jan. 13 meeting.

In December, the event organizer, St. Louis Home Fires, announced it would not be putting on the Bash due to a lack of financial commitment from the city. Wildwood’s City Council had reduced the event’s budget by $15,000 from 2019 to 2020.

The loss of the BBQ Bash came after several debates over the 2020 budget where eventually the council voted for a “balanced” budget that made several cuts in programs and events. Most of the council supported the reduced budget for the popular event as part of an effort to rein in spending. But council member Niles Stephens [Ward 8] contends the BBQ Bash was the victim of misguided priorities on the part of city leaders not fiscal prudence.

“Since 2016, tax revenues into the city are up but in 2020 we cut funding and ended up losing the BBQ Bash, the city calendar, and the Shredding and Recycling Event,” Stephens said by email. “It’s disappointing to see more tax dollars coming in and less resident-focused events and services.”

Mayor Jim Bowlin disagrees with that conclusion. Shortly after the 2020 budget was approved by the council Bowlin noted that, while overall annual expenditures were projected to go down by 3.8%, funds for critical services such as public safety were actually going up [for example, the budget for the police is up 1.7%].

Money and budgets were on the council members’ minds as they discussed alternatives and next steps.

“But given the budget for 2020 and the budget constraints,” council member Debra Smith McCutchen [Ward 5] said. “I think we should either use that [$35,000] for one of two things: move it to 2021 for an event that we could well think out before we jump into it. But I think a better use of those funds would be to go to the Wildwood celebration [Celebrate Wildwood].”

Council members Katie Dodwell [Ward 4] and Cheryl Jordan [Ward 6] advocated for more equestrian events in Wildwood. Dodwell said she and Jordan would be meeting with Wildwood Economic Development Manager Julian Jacquin soon to discuss possibilities.

The ideas bounced around during the council’s work session on Jan. 13 ranged from adding the funds to the above-mentioned events to exploring the possibility of securing a new vendor to continue the BBQ Bash. While money seemed to be at the heart of the impasse with St. Louis Home Fires, the budget for the Bash is hardly the most expensive city-wide event.

Based on reports filed on January 9to the Celebrate Wildwood Commission, the city spent $96,440.31 and $48,729.54 on the 2019 Celebrate Wildwood and Arts Festival respectively. Those numbers dwarf the $35,000 the Council had approved for this year’s BBQ Bash.

Bowlin proposed an ad hoc committee to focus on combing through the many options and making a recommendation back to the Council. Although several council members question whether another committee was needed, Bowlin stood firm asserting his desire not to draw time and energy away from the planning of other community events.

“This is a proactive action for our residents to identify the best way to use their taxpayer dollars to replace an event that occurs later this year,” Bowlin said after the meeting. “It will have better financial transparency. I was disappointed this important committee [a council-approved ad hoc committee dedicated to exploring various options] was opposed by the few who have been obstructing positive things that benefit our residents.”

Council member Joe Garritano [Ward 8] was optimistic that the committee would be successful in filling the gap in the city’s fall calendar.

“The ad hoc committee will be tasked to provide a recommendation,” Garritano said. “We have what I call “the Wildwood spirit” … this presents a great opportunity to reflect on the success and challenges of the past … because our residents come first.”

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