Local News

Event stirs debate again

HIGHWAY PARK - An organizer of the annual festival in Highway Park on Easter Sunday vowed the event will continue this year, regardless of requirements imposed by Highlands County. In an interview with Highlands Today and an email to Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton, Onterial Clark, a resident of the predominantly black Highway Park community, said organizers find it hard financially to meet requirements to pay for Highlands County deputies at the event and to buy insurance. In his email to Benton, Clark noted that she told him her office could not afford to provide deputies for the event. "Well Ms. Benton, with all due respect, I suggest you find a budget because we will come out in better numbers than ever," he said. Clark also said he believes the sheriff's office is racist.
Benton took exception to the accusation of racism, saying that she's offered to work with organizers of the event. She said the main issue surrounding the event is public safety because of the large gathering of people, which can run into the thousands. "… As to me being racist and the sheriff's office not providing adequate service to the Highway Park community, that is absolutely untrue and far from the truth," Benton said. This is the second year the county, the sheriff's office and organizers have been at loggerheads. Although the event is occurring on Easter Sunday — as it has for more than a decade — it doesn't involve religious services or an Easter egg hunt. Past celebrations shown on YouTube have shown people dancing in the street. A flier says it will be the Easter Sunday Car and Bike Show and will be held largely in the area surrounding Highway Park Liquors. Clark said money from the show, which will last from 5 to 9 p.m., will help the STAR after-school event in the county. Some after-event parties will be held further away from the residential area after 9 p.m. During past years, Clark said, there have been no arrests for violence. Because of that, he questions why any large numbers of deputies are needed. Benton agreed that crime was not the issue. She said any event that draws thousands of people requires crowd control and steps taken to protect public safety. Although Clark said that the event has grown because of word-of-mouth and social media, and that many of the activities or gatherings occur on private property, Benton said it "is not a neighborhood get together." The event draws in many people who have connections with the community, such as former residents, Clark said. Benton said they've tried to work with the residents to resolve concerns, but it appears the organizers don't want to find ways to comply with county concerns. Linda Conrad, zoning coordinator of Highlands County, said she's met with the organizers, but they've been unable to provide details that would determine exactly what they had to do to get the event approved. "I haven't received anything in writing," she said. The organizers of the event say they've tried to find ways to deal with crowd control. They've wanted to use Martin Luther King Jr. Park but were told county law barred it since vendors would make profits, Clark said. He said holding many of the activities at a park would have helped deal with crowd control and traffic problems.