White Rock's Torchlight Parade may be cut from this year's Spirit of the Sea Festival.

White Rock's Torchlight Parade may be cut from this year's Spirit of the Sea Festival.

Torchlight Parade might be snuffed

White Rock's Torchlight Parade may be cut from this year's Spirit of the Sea Festival, and replaced with a block party.

Organizers of this summer’s Spirit of the Sea Festival are seriously contemplating a dramatic change to the tradition – cancelling the Torchlight Parade.

Festival director Matt Todd confirmed Monday that talks around replacing the traditional waterfront procession with a Marine Drive block party got underway last week.

The “epiphany” to switch things up came as organizers mulled how best to balance the concerns of merchants opposed to a Saturday night parade with the logistical nightmare of putting together a Sunday evening event the first weekend in August.

“We’ve sent people to go and talk to every merchant on the beach no less than three times this year, and they’ve been getting more angry every time,” Todd said, referring to reaction to details that were coming together for a Saturday parade.

“Maybe we need to reinvent this.”

But the idea of kiboshing the tradition is not sitting well with some.

“It’s a real shame if they want to do that,” said Mayor Wayne Baldwin. “Once they lose that momentum, it’s hard to get people to come back.”

The parade has been part of the festivities in some form since the festival’s start  in the early 1950s. Former parade marshall Vin Coyne recalls it started out as a daytime feature, and evolved into a torchlight event in about 1984.

Coyne couldn’t recall the parade ever being cancelled but said if that did happen, “it was a long time ago.”

According to the festival website (spiritofthessea.ca), the parade is currently set for Saturday, Aug. 4.

Meetings to discuss all of the festival details take place weekly at the Semiahmoo First Nation church, and Todd is hopeful those with suggestions or ideas will join the team this Thursday evening.

He said the parade issue has been “vexing” the festival for years, and described trying to organize it for a Sunday as “like trying to push water uphill.”

For reasons Todd can’t explain, volunteers – which are crucial for the event’s success – are always much harder to find for the Sunday. For the two years when the parade was held on Saturday night, in 2009 and 2010, not only were volunteers easier to muster, but police reported fewer problems, he said.

“It worked really, really well for us,” he said.

Merchants, however, were less than thrilled, and have been expressing their displeasure with this year’s shift back to Saturday – the parade was held on a Sunday last year – ever since the news was announced.

For them, a Saturday parade is a big hit to business, as parade-goers often come down early and settle in at a restaurant table for the night, Todd said. The usual turnover doesn’t happen, and that impacts revenues.

Business Improvement Association executive director Sherri Wilson-Morissette confirmed merchants have expressed concern about the hit to business, particularly on a Saturday night, and said they would prefer “anything that keeps the traffic moving.”

Todd said ideas bandied about last week for a block party involved having elements of the parade from one end of Marine Drive to the other, all aimed at engaging visitors who would still frequent the restaurants, but be less inclined to linger at one. Ideas suggested include instead of having a van drive by with members of the Surrey Eagles, that perhaps the team could be convinced to play some street hockey with festival visitors; and instead of a flat-bed truck with square dancers showing their moves, perhaps the dancers could host a demonstration and invite people to give it a try.

“We think that will probably be more engaging,” Todd said. “It gives no incentive whatsoever to hold a table at a restaurant.

“One of our goals is to be more engaging, and the parade really isn’t.

“I think if the community gets behind it and gets involved and engaged in it, it’ll be better than the parade.”

Debbie Ward, co-chair of the White Rock Youth Ambassador program, said the ambassadors will be part of any event.

But she, too, was disappointed to hear there likely won’t be a parade.

“It’s awful,” Ward said. “It’s so important to communities to have little things that mark community. It’s such a shame when those little things fall apart.”

Thursday’s meeting gets underway at 6 p.m. The church is located on SFN land, just south of the foot bridge accessed from Marine Drive at 160 Street.