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Biddeford and Saco plan outdoor winter carnival

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Posted: Thursday, December 22, 2011 2:55 pm

BIDDEFORD & SACO- Everything is falling into place for Biddeford and Saco's first-ever joint winter festival, scheduled for Feb. 10-12, but the one thing organizers can't control is the weather.

The hope is that there will be enough snow and ice for all the outdoor festivities being planned, including sledding, snowshoeing, skating and snow volleyball. But with an unusually warm fall, those in charge are well aware that all of their careful planning could go awry.

"We're working on contingency plans now," said John Maxson of La Société St. Jean Baptiste de Bienfaisance, which also puts on the annual La Fête du Printemps, or spring arts and culture festival, at City Theater. "But unfortunately we are at the mercy of the weather."

Still, Maxson said there would be plenty of indoor activities, as well, such as a dance on Saturday night, a concert on Friday night, and the arts and farmers market being planned could also be moved inside, if necessary.

"What we're hoping is to get everybody outside to have some fun," he added. "And the more people we get involved, the better the festival will be."

Maxson said the St. Jean Baptiste society for several years has been "kicking around" the idea of holding an outdoor winter carnival, along the lines of the Carnaval de Québec, the annual 17-day, pre-Lent blowout hosted by the city of Quebec in Canada, and decided now was the time to move forward.

"The idea is to make the winter carnival a companion to our spring festival, which focuses mostly on the arts," Maxson said. "And we hope it will become an annual event that just gets bigger and bigger."

The first hurdle, according to Maxson, was getting City Council approval for the festival, which happened at a meeting on Tuesday at City Hall. The council supported the permits allowing the festival to go forward with a unanimous 9-0 vote and no discussion.

Another hurdle, which has also been cleared, was getting enough interest and volunteer help from various organizations across the twin cities. In fact, according to Maxson, excitement about the festival is running high.

"I'm really surprised at how quickly this whole thing has taken off," he said. "Especially with Facebook. I don't Facebook myself, but I know there's a lot of activity on our festival page."

Maxson said plans for the winter festival include creating a skating venue in downtown Biddeford, creating a snow park, with sliding, on Adams Street and holding snowshoe races on York Street, in conjunction with the statewide Winter Kids program.

There will also be a snow and ice sculpture event that could include competition amongst the classes at Biddeford High School and possibly Thornton Academy, as well. Maxson said the sculptures could definitely be spread across the river to Saco, and he's aware that both Mia's and the Run of the Mill restaurants in Saco are interested in participating somehow.

And on Tuesday, Kathryn Garrity, a member of the board of directors at Saco Spirit, the city's downtown revitalization organization, said, "We're rounding up the troops and are very excited about (the festival) even though we're not quite sure what we're doing yet."

Dr. Daniel Parenteau, who is in charge of organizing the nonprofit groups wishing to take part, said the goal behind the festival is to create an event "bustling with winter sports, food, games, music and dance that will showcase (Biddeford's) heritage, diversity and community."

He's already received interest from those wanting to put up booths selling hot cocoa, mulled apple cider, pork pie turnovers and graham cracker cake. In addition, Parenteau said a couple of groups have also talked about sponsoring either a breakfast or a spaghetti supper, or possibly both.

"There is a great deal of excitement around (the festival) so far," he added. Any group or organization that would like to have a food or drink both should contact Parenteau so he can "coordinate the when, where and what." He said festival organizers are hoping to avoid duplication of vendors and to offer as wide a variety of goods as possible.

The "about" section on the festival's Facebook page describes it as a "February winter fun event in the downtown area featuring snowshoe racing, snow volleyball, food, Franco music, snow sculptures, etc, for all ages."

"Volunteers needed," the page states, adding organizers are looking for "people with ideas who want to have fun and help create a sense of Franco/ethnic community."

Alan Casavant, Biddeford's new mayor, who is also a member of the St. Jean Baptiste society, said he first envisioned a winter festival for Biddeford "a few years ago."

But, he said, the hold up in offering such an event "always revolved around the availability of snow." However, after visiting Fort Kent for the annual dog sled races there and seeing how the town stored snow to ensure the races could be held, he knew the same thing could be done in Biddeford.

That's when he talked Maxson and City Councilor Roch Angers into moving forward with the winter festival. Originally, the plan was to hold the festival in downtown Biddeford only. But as part of a new effort to bring the twin cities together more, the festival has now expanded to include Saco as well.

While many of the details of the festival are still evolving, Casavant said it will "definitely include" a night of Acadian and Franco music at City Theater, snowshoe racing, ice skating, snow volleyball, events for seniors at the Ross Center, events for young kids like sledding, plenty of food, snow sculptures in Biddeford and Saco, the involvement of local restaurants and businesses and opportunities for nonprofits to sell wares and food.

"Basically it will just be a fun, outdoor, community-based weekend," Casavant said. "The goals are to generate community pride and spirit; to celebrate ethnic diversity; to demonstrate the possibilities that exist in Biddeford and Saco; and most of all to have fun."

The winter festival also ties into Casavant's efforts to help the residents of Biddeford, in particular, "rediscover their heritage, and feel community pride." In addition, he said "having Saco involved is huge, as we were once one community and our future lies together, not apart.

"I believe a community that feels positive and good about itself radiates that energy outward and attracts businesses, tourists and residents."


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