Taste of DC Canceled Over Security Hitch

Street performer and breakdancer Chris Munoz, 17, entertains at the last Taste of DC, in October 2003.
Street performer and breakdancer Chris Munoz, 17, entertains at the last Taste of DC, in October 2003. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 26, 2005

The original plan anticipated thousands of people venturing downtown this weekend to nosh on treats from 40 local restaurants as part of the annual Taste of DC, for years one of the largest outdoor food and music festivals on the East Coast.

But the massive event has been canceled because city and tourism officials said they failed to realize that another major holiday event could overwhelm the city's emergency response network. The annual Rolling Thunder "Ride for Freedom" ends in Washington on Sunday, and the National Memorial Day Parade will be held in the city Monday.

Officials now say their decision to move Taste of DC to Memorial Day weekend from its traditional Columbus Day weekend was a mistake.

"We made the decision in isolation," said Susan Linsky, a special assistant to the deputy mayor for economic development. "That was the unfortunate part."

The festival's organizer, the American Experience Foundation, an arm of Washington, DC Convention and Tourism Corp., spends about $1.5 million to put on the event, with costs defrayed by contributions and vendor and restaurant fees, said Victoria Isley, spokeswoman for the tourism group. Some of the vendors had been notified of the cancellation by late April, she said.

But the city's planning failure has affected dozens of restaurants and organizations that depend on the festival to showcase the latest tapas or spring rolls or spread their political messages.

Leaders of Smokefree DC received a telephone call May 4 from a Taste of DC representative who said that the festival was not happening and that the group's $1,000 fee would be returned. But by that time, Smokefree DC officials had already begun scheduling volunteers to operate a booth and ordering stickers and other supplies to hand out.

"It's a bit of an inconvenience, but it's also the missed opportunity," said Angela Bradbery, co-founder of Smokefree DC, an organization that is pushing an effort to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. "It would have been three days to reach out to thousands and thousands of people. It's a huge disappointment for us."

Isley and Linsky said the decision to move the event to Memorial Day was made late last summer. Because many downtown offices do not close for Columbus Day, the crowds, street closings and bands were a noisy inconvenience, they said. By switching the event to Memorial Day, it could serve as the city's kickoff to the summer tourist season.

Planning went forward. But when Taste officials went to the city's special events task force this spring to request permission, they were told that the event would overwhelm the city's emergency response capability.

"Nobody realized the resources that went into the events and how it taxed fire, rescue, police and everything else that has to go on in the city," Linsky said. "We understood their concerns. Public safety is paramount."

Linsky said that the focus is on figuring out a better time and place to hold the event and that Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) "has been very clear that he would like the Taste of DC to continue."

Taste of DC was last held in October 2003. Linsky said the mayor has increased the administration's contribution to the event from $100,000 to $400,000 and wants it to become a neighborhood-based festival that attracts higher-caliber restaurants. She also said the mayor has proposed including a local version of the "Iron Chef" competition, similar to the popular program on the Food Network.

"We liked it better when it was in the fall, so we're not disappointed it was rescheduled. We would only be disappointed if they didn't do it all,'' said Michelle Torres, marketing director for the Phillips Flagship restaurant on Water Street SW.

Isley and Linsky said a new date for Taste of DC could be announced soon.

"We are taking the time to get a sense of what a future city celebration would look like, and we don't have a definite definition of that," Isley said. "So there is nothing concrete I can tell you, because we're just in the beginning of those discussions."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company