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The Daily Tar Heel

Precautions Overkill on Halloween

Local politicos tout the sense of community, and most people would agree that Chapel Hill exhibits a vibrancy you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in this state.

That sense of uniqueness is exemplified by Halloween night on Franklin Street.

And that sense of uniqueness was squashed this year by overbearing regulations -- making the annual Halloween celebration a disappointment rather than a continuation of tradition.

As the first full moon on a Halloween night in 46 years illuminated police badges, roadblocks were erected in a 1 1/2-mile radius around the downtown area, and police checkpoints were set up along the Franklin Street party route.

Most parking decks on campus were closed off.

Mayor Rosemary Waldorf even declared a state of emergency so that Chapel Hill could become our own tiny police state in the South.

The effect: traffic jams, business losses, overwhelming municipal costs and a severe dampening of a local tradition that has turned into a statewide legend.

A crowd that swelled to 50,000 last year barely reached 25,000 this year.

The entire exercise was an example of security overkill. And instead of alleviating problems, the overbearing "protection" ended up causing the town many more.

There's the tab for all the police protection -- 315 officers from 15 different agencies -- which officials are still calculating. Last year alone, the town spent $75,000 on police security and had 200 officers present.

With an extra 100 officers on hand, why wouldn't that price tag increase?

Businesses on Franklin Street, especially bars, suffered from anemic crowds compared to years past. Some even were forced to send the extra workers they had scheduled home due to lackluster sales. Halloween is usually an incredible boom for local eateries and bars, but not this year.

With all the roadblocks, fewer older students who live off campus were inclined to go on a scavenger hunt for parking spaces throughout the town -- leaving the underage residence hall-dwellers to stay on the streets instead of filling up barstools.

I'm sure the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce and the Chapel Hill Town Council will hear about the repercussions of the security crackdown as owners tally up sales from last week.

Traffic was chaotic. Funny how a 1 1/2-mile roadblock around the center of town has the effect of screwing up most major roadways in a 10-mile radius. From Airport Road through N.C. 54 and U.S. 15-501, red brake lights gave a nice, bloody glow to the night.

Coming from Raleigh, I waded through an hour's worth of traffic on N.C. 54 to make a trip that ordinarily takes 15 minutes.

But beyond the numbers, the spirit of the celebration was ruined.

At a time when people are paranoid about planes falling out of the sky and anthrax letters coming out of our mailbox, Halloween on Franklin Street should provide a great escape from the pressures of life, both real and imagined. Instead, with decontamination tents, confiscation of any costume accessory not glued to your body, and an avalanche of uniforms, Chapel Hill was another affirmation of national fear.

There's obviously a need for security for mass gatherings such as this -- and the town has done a good job of handling it in the past with much larger numbers of revelers and fewer police officers. Perfect, no. But it was much less oppressive and certainly cheaper. The party must go on, after all.

Town leaders should learn from this year's Halloween and make amends next year.

Adequate security can be balanced with an open, diverse crowd from around the state.

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If the crowds continue to dwindle in the face of tight restrictions, one of the traditions that typifies Chapel Hill's spirit will die.

And that's what scares me.

Columnist Jonathan Chaney can be reached at jhchaney@email.unc.edu.

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