When Milton Theatre cancelled and then relocated the annual Zombie Fest to Dewey Beach, much of the heat fell on Milton town officials, specifically Mayor Ted Kanakos, for what the theater called hamstringing what could be done at the festival.
Kanakos had declined to make public comment on the situation, in large part, he says, because he did not want to be drawn into a controversy. But with the Dewey edition of Zombie Fest set to begin at 4 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 19, at Northbeach, Kanakos and the town have now decided to give their side of the dispute.
“We were put on the defensive, immediately,” he said. “I shy away from the chaos. I wasn’t going to be put on the defensive for something I didn’t do. They decided that it wasn’t economically feasible. We didn’t cancel it.”
According to Kanakos, and in a planned press release the town had intended to send out but did not, the theater had met with town officials on the theater’s event application. Kanakos said the theater had originally proposed a 12-hour street closure on Union Street with a stage, vendors and food trucks on the first block of Union in front of the theater.
The town had serious concerns about this proposal as it did not fit with the space. “We explained that we can’t paralyze the town on something like this,” Kanakos said.
Instead, he said, the town proposed using Milton Memorial Park for vendors and food trucks, using the Governor’s Walk to connect the events. Music would be on the Quayside Stage next to the theater, and the theater would be able to use the library for children’s events. Kanakos said the town also offered the municipal lot on Magnolia Street for additional food trucks, if necessary. Kanakos said this proposal was rejected by theater representatives, who favored a block party setup on Union Street.
“I think we gave them more. I don’t really know why they cancelled, to be honest,” he said. “I think they wanted a bigger venue.”
Milton Theatre Director of Marketing JP Lacap said none of those locations would allow for alcohol to be served, and closing the parking lot would take up much-needed parking spots.
Previously, Zombie Fest had been held on the Milton Historical Society lot next to the Lydia Cannon Museum. But the museum told the theater the ground could not be used this year due to flooding issues. Theater officials have said that was when the decision was made to turn the festival, which previously had a $10 entry fee, into a free street fair.
Kanakos said theater officials anticipated 5,000 showing up to this year’s festival, but he had his doubts about that figure.
Lacap said, “I think, based on the turnout last year and the feedback after the initial cancellation, that the event truly needed to expand. The question for me really is, if other towns that are close to the size of Milton can close their streets for a festival, what prevents Milton from doing it? Georgetown closed several of theirs for a day for the Hispanic Festival, Milford for Ladybug Festival and Oktoberfest. When we announced it initially, many of the surrounding small towns wanted us to transfer the festival to them, which probably means road closure is generally not a big issue.”
On July 1, town council approved a plan allowing for four food trucks on Union Street in front of the theater, vendors and staging at the Quayside Stage and a closure of Union Street from 5 to 10 p.m.
Theater officials did not attend the July 1 meeting, but moved forward with plans anyway until Aug. 22, when the theater announced the festival was cancelled, citing limitations imposed on the event by the town.
As controversy swirled around the mayor, Kanakos did not respond to requests for interviews. He said that is something he regrets now. “It was a sticky situation. I should have nipped this in the bud. But I hate controversy,” Kanakos said.
Over Labor Day weekend, the theater announced the event was back on. Then, on Sept. 23, the theater announced Zombie Fest would relocate to Dewey, with events shared between Northbeach and the Bottle & Cork from 4 to 11 p.m.
In response, Milton businesses and nonprofits banded together to start their own fall festival, Fall Back Into Milton, to be held Oct. 19 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. “They understood the situation and they got together within 24 hours, and they have their own thing. That’ll grow and grow and grow, and that’s fine,” Kanakos said.
Still, Kanakos said he is open to the theater bringing Zombie Fest back to Milton. “I welcome them back. I don’t think they will be back. But if it is done in a balanced manner that does not compromise our values and safety, the mayor will welcome them back,” he said.