By Randy Gaddo
As representatives from the original 13 colonies gathered in Philadelphia late on the afternoon of July 4, 1776, to sign the Declaration of Independence, President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock, signed his name with a great flourish, saying he did it “so [England’s] King George can read that without spectacles.”
Since then, Americans have celebrated their unique shared heritage just as the second President John Adams suggested in a July 3, 1776, letter to his wife: “Pomp and parade, with shews [shows], games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this Continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
These days, across the continent, it is easy to see (even without spectacles) that when Americans are celebrating the holiday, most parks and rec professionals are, in one way or another, working to make sure these celebrations go off without a hitch. What isn’t so easy to see is all the work that parks and rec maintenance professionals put in before, during, and after those celebrations.
A Coordinated Effort
Meridian, Idaho’s preparations for the July Fourth holiday begin months in advance with a cross-functional coordinating committee leading the charge; sitting at that meeting is Roger Norberg, the city’s Parks Maintenance Foreman. He is there to ensure the maintenance crew can support any and all planned events.
“We do a lot of coordination with other city departments, such as with police for setting up traffic-control barriers and public works for preparation and clean-up,” Norberg says. He notes that in the months leading up to the Fourth, the crew is cleaning, painting, and fixing; however, on the day of the Fourth, there are only two members on duty.
“Our two maintenance crew members have a unique duty—they are posted at the city’s dog park, which has artificial turf, to ensure that the turf doesn’t catch fire from hot, falling debris,” Norberg explains. “But the dog park is the best spot in the city to watch the fireworks, so we don’t have any trouble finding volunteers,” he quips.
It’s all hands on deck the day after the Fourth to help clean up in the aftermath of the city-wide celebration; the sheriff’s department even brings in “volunteers,” who are working off community service to help. “We have a budget to clean parking lots, and if we need to, we can use that to bring in contracted street-sweeping equipment if the mess is bad enough,” says Norberg.
Norberg notes that all these events are held in an 18-acre park that has five acres of natural-turf baseball fields, which is where most people sit for the fireworks, as well as a playground, shelters, restrooms, and other support facilities. This does keep the mess confined to one general area, making cleanup quicker and easier. There is also an overtime budget if needed, but Barton emphasizes that staff members are allowed to take flex time if they can.
Meridian is the fastest-growing city in the state; in 2010, the population was 75,000 and now it’s 95,000 and counting. As a trend-setting city, its events are, by default, high-profile, and may draw a regional as well as local crowd. However, the parks crew looks at the July Fourth event as simply another one of the myriad special events it supports during the busiest summer season between May and July. Some of the events are city-sponsored; some are held by third-party groups and supported by the city.
Mike Barton, the Parks Superintendent, explains that the department hosts an Easter egg hunt attended by 13,000 people, a Christmas Winter Lights event, a large Memorial Day girl’s fast-pitch tournament, etc., but, he says, by the time the Fourth arrives, staff members just “roll with it.”
In fact, the July Fourth celebration goes back-to-back with the city’s big annual event, Dairy Days and Stock Show, with a week between the end of Dairy Days and the Fourth. However, that serves a useful purpose—all the work and preparation for Dairy Days carries right into the Fourth.
Since Dairy Days includes a large parade, there isn’t one in Meridian for July Fourth. However, there are afternoon and evening events, including family games, festival attractions, food vendors, live music, and fireworks.
Meridian Dairy Days is always held in the third full week in June; this year’s 68th annual event was June 20 to 23. It is sponsored by the Meridian Dairy Board, among others, and supported by the city. “Dairy Days celebrates this area’s agricultural background and legacy,” says Barton. “It is really our signature event that leads into the July Fourth celebration.”
Barton adds that maintenance planning for Dairy Days really starts about a year in advance, since it is more involved than the Fourth, with a parade followed by fireworks, several family events held at the local speedway, and a stock show, among other events. The maintenance crew even drives a couple of floats in the parade and, of course, is heavily involved in cleanup after the events.
Cleaning up the mess after big events such as the Fourth is one of the more arduous tasks for parks maintenance crews. It is most often hot work done by hand, walking along parade routes or patrolling parks for trash.
For example, in 2017 on San Diego beaches, about 1,400 pounds of trash and nearly 400 pounds of recyclables were gathered by staff members and volunteers. At Lake Tahoe, Calif., last year on July 5, the Keep Tahoe Blue volunteers picked up 1,680 pounds of trash, walking 5.64 miles of beach at six different sites.
While the numbers may not be as big in Moraga, Calif., the ratio of mess-to-work is probably on the same scale. Located in the San Francisco Bay area, the picturesque and historic city of 17,000 has a rich heritage that makes July Fourth especially meaningful. Its name relates to Joseph Joaquin Moraga, the second in command of the 1776 expedition that led to the founding of San Francisco.
With that star-spangled backdrop, the town hosts an annual July Fourth day of events that includes live entertainment in its band shell, a pancake breakfast, a dog parade, a children’s bike parade, and a host of red, white, and blue community and food booths. The day concludes with a bursting fireworks show. Most of the activities are held in the city’s premiere park, the Commons.
“The parks maintenance crew is involved in the several months of planning leading up to the event, contributing to the conversations about event logistics and park impact,” says Breyana Brandt, Moraga’s Parks and Recreation Director.
A Little TLC
In order to keep tabs on how each piece of the puzzle fits, the staff members in Moraga use a planning spreadsheet that sets out planning goals on a month-by-month basis to ensure everything is covered. “It is the best way to make sure there is proper communication between town staff regarding who is responsible for what,” says Brandt. “This is especially useful when different departments have different responsibilities to ensure the success of an event. We find it is essential to have the park maintenance staff at the table from the get-go.”
When a July Fourth planning committee discusses any significant changes to the event layout, mapping, or logistics, the parks maintenance crew and public works crew weigh in. They are often the victims of circumstance when someone makes a decision in a void and creates a situation that crews in the field are forced to deal with. These potential disasters can be headed off with proper planning. “Sometimes, the best ideas are hindered by things such as logistics, access, or electricity limitations, and it’s always best to know that up front before you get too far into planning,” Brandt says.
The Moraga July Fourth events are very popular with the citizens, but that comes with a price. “While it is fabulous that this is a very well-attended event … successful events often mean a significant impact on our facilities and additional use and wear and tear on one of our significant parks,” notes Brandt. “This often means that the parks maintenance crew has to ensure a little extra TLC to accommodate the additional usage.”
Another anticipated consequence of this successful event is that it requires the staff to work a longer, harder day than usual. Staffing these events in Moraga often means overtime hours for maintenance staff. “It is generally the staff’s choice whether they earn overtime pay, compensatory time, or flex their time and try to take a day off later in the week,” says Brandt. “We do our best to make sure employees are able to take a vacation sometime in the weeks following the event so they have time to rest and recoup and enjoy a little time away during the summer months.”
The parks maintenance crew is solely responsible for substantial work in prepping the Fourth event site the week before, and the crew also assists with setting up booths, equipment, and other requirements. It provides staff during the event to assist with trash and recycling pickup. All staff members are responsible for maintenance-type functions during the event.
And A Lot Of Help
Like so many other cities, when it comes to staffing the cleanup portion after the Fourth, it’s all-hands-on-deck. However, there never seems to be enough staff. What is Moraga’s secret weapon? “Volunteers … lots and lots of volunteers,” Brandt says. “We rely on our community volunteers and organized service groups (both youth and adult) to help keep the event site clean during the event and then, of course, following it.”
Brandt suggests it is wise to work early in the planning with vendors that are providing food or those at community booths so they have a clear understanding of the expectations when it comes to cleanup to avoid putting undue work on the crew. “At the end of the day, when the booths and tables are broken down, it’s the worst when you find excess trash and boxes left behind by vendors,” she says. She adds that ensuring enough trash and recycling receptacles are available can help encourage vendors and the public to make their best effort in leaving the facility in good condition.
Another excellent point is one that is too often overlooked. “It is wise to hold a follow-up meeting after such a large event and do this right away while everything is still fresh in your mind,” she advises. “Jot down notes and suggestions for next year’s event to make sure it runs even smoother.”
Many of the events and activities at contemporary July Fourth events were unconceived at the birth of the nation; in President Adams’ day, dog parades would have been scoffed at, and parks and rec wasn’t even a thing yet. But if it had been, you can bet the parks maintenance professionals would have been at the table, engaged in planning and helping to ring in freedom on the Fourth.
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, Ala.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.