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"Homegrown Halloween" shrinks due to safety concerns

(left to right) Alexis Byrd, Annabeth Poe, Tyler Brown, and Jessica Hardison strolled down Franklin St. as UNC's National Championship banners.
(left to right) Alexis Byrd, Annabeth Poe, Tyler Brown, and Jessica Hardison strolled down Franklin St. as UNC's National Championship banners.

Halloween in Chapel Hill has become more tame in recent years due to collaborative efforts to make the town’s celebration more local. 

“People were coming from all over the place for Halloween,” Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said. “It became a public safety issue, so we’re trying to make it more homegrown, keep it lower key here.” 

Chapel Hill Police expect 20,000 to 25,000 people to turn out for Tuesday’s celebration according to Ran Northam, Chapel Hill's community safety communications specialist — far removed from the 80,000 people that celebrated in 2008.

“People were coming in from all over the state, from different universities, and even from neighboring states,” he said. “They would actually hire charter buses, and charter buses would drop people off downtown. It really got to a level that was unsafe. There were just too many people in one area. So that’s where the title ‘Homegrown Halloween’ comes from.” 

The Franklin Street celebration has roots stretching back decades. Northam said the tradition originated when restaurants and bars in downtown Chapel Hill invited people to compete in costume contests for prizes. 

“Then it gradually grew over time and then got to a point that was just unwieldy,” Northam said.

Heather Molaro graduated from UNC in 1995 and said her friends would often stay with her on Halloween.

“It always felt like a crush, number-of-people-wise — it felt like we had won a national championship,” Molaro said. “There were so many people and there were always the same deals — there were bonfires, people climbing on the lampposts and on top of the bus stop.”

Northam said the town has made efforts to shrink the size and intensity of the celebration through parking restrictions and street closures. 

“We have made a concerted effort in the town of Chapel Hill to emphasize that this first of all is not an event," he said. "It is not a publicized event that the town of Chapel Hill puts on. The town of Chapel Hill’s role in this is a response for community safety, to make sure those people who do come to Franklin street and downtown Chapel Hill on the night of Halloween have the best opportunity to remain as safe as possible.”

Hemminger said the purpose of the Homegrown Halloween event is to make it feel more organic and centered around the community.

“When we close off the streets, it makes it easier for families to wander around,” she said. “We’re trying to cut back on the busloads of people who would come from outside of the community to make it more of a community event.”

Even though the event is meant for residents only, visitors aren’t barred from Chapel Hill on Halloween, Northam said.

Katie Bartholomew, assistant director for UNC Housing, said they encourage dorm residents to fill out guest registration forms online to help keep track of visitors.

“Granville Towers, because of their proximity to Franklin Street has always had a required guest registration,” she said. “A few years ago, it was brought up that this is something we should do on campus even though we didn’t see as much of the action from Franklin Street and we thought it'd be a good idea because we had a few incidents come up where guests became lost from their hosts.

She also emphasized that UNC housing wants all students to be cautious during the festivities. 

“We really want students to be safe because sometimes there’s a tendency to think Halloween is an exception night and we just want people to know you still have to make good decisions," Bartholomew said. "We want you to be safe, and to have fun but not to have a really bad experience because you’re not being thoughtful about what you’re doing. The rules still apply.”

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