‘Overwhelmed’ Put-in-Bay struggles with raucous Christmas in July crowds
‘Overwhelmed’ Put-in-Bay struggles with raucous Christmas in July crowds
PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio – Christmas wasn’t very merry for many on Put-in-Bay this year. Instead, it was crowded, chaotic and trashed.
The island’s annual Christmas in July celebration last month attracted what appeared to be a record number of revelers, according to island police. It also generated a high number of complaints from residents and businesses, who are getting tired of the annual invasion and the negative media attention it often generates.
“Put-in-Bay really does not want to have Christmas in July anymore,” said Put-in-Bay Police Chief Steve Riddle, a long-time island resident.
But the small island community, surrounded by Lake Erie and accessible via two public ferries, may be powerless to stop it.
For decades, Put-in-Bay has enjoyed a well-earned reputation for its weekend party scene, where an attitude of what-happens-here-stays-here prevails on the streets of its small downtown.
That already-robust party scene gets multiplied many times over in late July, during what has become the island’s biggest event of the year, a days-long Christmas in July celebration with Christmas decorations, Santa visits and plenty of adult beverages.
But what started as a fun celebration has evolved into gridlock. This year, on the event’s busiest day, Saturday, July 21, golf carts clogged the streets, the smell of marijuana permeated the air, and trash lined the sidewalks.
“It overtaxes our resources. It overwhelms us,” said Brad Ohlemacher, a local business owner and president of the Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. “We have to figure out a better way to make it work, to create a better experience for everybody.”
Christmas in July didn’t start out this way. According to Peter Huston, director of the chamber, the celebration started years ago as a modest thank-you from island businesses to their employees. “It was called ‘Christmas’ since the workers are not here in December,” he said.
In recent years, it’s grown increasingly popular, fueled, in part, by tour bus companies that bring large numbers of visitors to the island for the day.
According to the police, more than 30 tour buses brought day visitors to the island this year – many more than previous years.
Riddle estimated that the island, with a year-round population of about 135, had more than 35,000 people on it on July 21, likely a record. “There were more people here than I have ever seen come to Put-in-Bay in one day,” said Riddle.
Every golf cart, the island’s main form of transportation, was rented, causing gridlock on downtown’s main streets.
Early in the day, police closed Delaware Avenue – the island’s “main street” – to vehicular traffic. Riddle said his biggest concern was that emergency vehicles would not be able to reach islanders in an emergency. Fortunately, he said, that didn’t happen.
Riddle and his crew of about 30 full- and part-time officers helped keep the peace with the help of more than 100 visiting law enforcement officials from other jurisdictions, including the State Highway Patrol, Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Coast Guard and others.
Early this year, Riddle developed a plan to increase the police presence during the event. He said there were four times as many officers patrolling the island this year, compared to previous years.
Officers made 27 arrests, charged 36 people with operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and wrote 75 tickets for minor misdemeanors, including open-container violations, said Riddle.
Videos of several fights, including one on a ferry boat headed back to the mainland, were spread widely via social media after the event. But Riddle said there were no major incidents.
The biggest issue, according to Riddle, was the trash that visitors left behind. “I think it’s disrespectful that you would go someplace and leave your trash lying on the road,” said Riddle. But then he added: “We don’t have a lot of trash cans. Maybe we have to take some of the blame for that.”
Next year, he said, visitors can expect an even larger police presence. And access will likely be restricted into the downtown area. He anticipates a system that would operate like a bar or store that reaches capacity – one golf cart can enter only when one leaves.
Village council, too, is exploring ways to prevent problems in the future.
Council President Jessica Dress said she fears long-time island visitors are staying away because of the crowds. “Not everybody here that weekend felt safe, and that’s a problem,” she said. “People are worried.”
She added: “This isn’t a new problem. We haven’t come up with a solution yet. We’re a tourist town – we want to welcome everybody.”
She also doesn’t want the island to overreact. One suggestion, she said, would ban visitors from bringing coolers onto golf carts. Though that might keep partiers from bringing their own beverages onto the island, it would also keep families from bringing picnics.
Many Put-in-Bay businesses told Dress they don’t do well economically during Christmas in July, because so many visitors bring their own food and drink (ferries and golf-cart rental companies being the exception, she said).
Dress fears that the village economy, so dependent on a resort sales tax, might suffer if changes aren’t made.
Chamber president Ohlemacher said his organization is reaching out to tour bus companies to encourage them to stagger their arrivals, so the island isn’t inundated all at once. “On a normal busy weekend, there are people arriving at different times,” said Ohlemacher. On Christmas in July, everyone seems to arrive at the same time, he said, before noon.
The agency also distributed maps with the hope of directing visitors out of downtown, to other parts of the island.
About 4 miles long by 1.5 miles at its widest, the island is home to numerous natural and manmade attractions such as South Bass Island State Park, Perry’s Cave and Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial.
However, that effort did not seem to work, as visitors congregated downtown.
“We don’t want to restrict people from coming here,” said Ohlemacher, the owner of Joe’s Bar and Restaurant and the Bird’s Nest Resort. “We need to do a better job once we have people, of handling the traffic and making it so it’s a better experience for everybody.”
Huston said the chamber has been working hard to emphasize more family-friendly aspects of the island. He blames the media, in part, for perpetuating the island’s party-hearty reputation.
“We don’t do any promotion of any kind that implies ‘party,’ ‘pool party,’ or ‘Key West of the North’ or any of the other negative images shared or implied by others,” he said. “We are frustrated that the messaging about our family-friendly experience keeps getting subverted by the ‘party’ story being retold.”
The chamber, he said, hasn’t promoted Christmas in July since 2012. He’s hoping all island businesses refrain from supporting or advertising the event next year.
Dress, however, said the event isn’t going to go away – even if some people want it to.
“Whether the chamber is sponsoring it or not, whether the village recognizes it or not, Christmas is going to be Christmas,” she said. “Canceling Christmas is not an option.”