By Zach Hagadone
As with a host of other long-time community events, including Lost in the ’50s and The Festival at Sandpoint, the annual Fourth of July celebration fell victim to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Sandpoint Lions Club, which had hosted the Independence Day event for decades, announced May 13 that it would cancel the 2020 festivities citing “the health and safety of the community we serve” as its primary concern.
“We look forward to celebrating the Fourth of July with our community next year,” the service organization stated in a news release.
Soon after, however, a group of private citizens organized a Facebook group and mounted an effort to “save” Independence Day — soliciting donations to secure the necessary permits and funds to put on a downtown parade, host a range of activities at Travers Park and stage a fireworks display at City Beach.
Within a few days, the group had garnered more than 1,000 members and, as of June 3, boasted more than 1,500. Meanwhile, according to a May 27 post by organizer Ron Korn, more than $19,000 had been donated to help pay for permitting fees and to cover the cost of the fireworks. According to fellow organizer Steve Wasylko, the group had raised all it needed to pay for the full range of events as of June 2.
Korn and Wasylko are both well known local conservative activists — the former a vocal commentator on various local Facebook forums and the latter a high-profile organizer of and participant in several gun rights demonstrations in recent years. Despite marketing materials circulated by the group, it is not a 501(c)3 organization, though it does have nonprofit D status and plans to secure 501(c)3 status in the coming months, according to Wasylko.
Despite the obvious and well known partisan political activities of the lead organizers, Wasylko insisted that, “There’s no political undertones to this whatsoever. Whoever wants to be in the parade can be in the parade — the commie-socialists of Sandpoint are certainly welcome to have a float in our parade.”
That said, a post on the Facebook group dated May 26 outlined the restrictions on participation in the events, including the parade, festival and fireworks show:
“SID organizes and produces sandpoints 4th of July events including the parade, festival, and the fireworks show. We do so to promote all people and businesses who want to unite in celebrating America’s birthday. The common ground being celebrating our nation’s Independence Day, not any personal agendas or special interests. This is a family friendly event. Individuals and businesses supporting this cause without any divisive message, agenda, or special interests, are welcome to participate. Sandpoint Independence Day reserves the right to refuse entrance into any of its events if the person, group, or business goes against these policies.[sic]”
Wasylko joked to the Reader that, “I’ll even take a turn and all the liberals in town can try and dunk me [in the dunk tank the group has rented for Travers Parks].”
In seriousness, Wasylko said questions regarding the political connotations of the “Save Independence Day Sandpoint” effort were “valid,” adding that “there’s absolutely zero political component to this in the slightest bit.”
“We gladly take volunteers from any spectrum of the community and anybody who wants to help us,” he said. “There’s absolutely no political motivation behind this at all, and ‘Save Independence’ means exactly what it is: The Lions canceled Independence Day, so this group started up to save Independence Day in Sandpoint and that’s frankly what we’re trying to do.”
The group has yet to secure any permits for its events. Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapelton said at the June 3 City Council meeting that officials are waiting for insurance information “that’s required in order for us to continue moving through our permitting process.”
Wasylko said the city has been “super cooperative and helpful,” while the Lions Club has also “been super helpful and they’ve given me pretty much every single bit of info they’ve used to plan the parade for decades.”
That was news to Lions Club President Howard Shay, who told the Reader that organizers on the “Save Independence Day Sandpoint” group are on their own.
“We don’t have any input on that,” he said.
“As for the future, he’s [Korn] made overtures about next year and ‘passing the baton’ or something, but he’s not contacted me or our board or written me any emails. I’ve told most of our Lions and I’ve emailed them and nobody’s saying that they ever told him that, so I don’t know where he’s getting it,” Shay added. “We never said we weren’t going to pick it back up.”
Though Shay noted that he won’t be president for much longer, the Lions are planning to revisit their plans for next year after July 4, 2020 — “standing right where we are with the news release [and] the news release doesn’t say that we’re handing it over, it says we’re going to see you next year. We don’t have any plans for certain and we would deal with it after the Fourth of July.”
It is immediately unclear when permits might be issued for the various Fourth of July events.
“This group has a pretty steep ramp that they’re trying to climb to be successful in this,” Shay said. “We’ve done this many years with much experience; we’re in the, ‘Wait-and-see-what-they-do’ mode.”
Visit sandpoint4th.com or “Sandpoint Independence Day” on Facebook for more info and updates.
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