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06.17.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Jessica Lussenhop
Berry Contentious: Promoter Leslie Peterson says trouble started when he challenged the strawberry festival's name change.

Strawberry Jam

Competing festivals in Watsonville make a mess.

By Jessica Lussenhop


AS Watsonville prepares for not one but two strawberry festivals after a bizarre falling out between city officials and Modesto-based festival promoter Leslie Peterson, residents, nonprofits and local businesses are left puzzling out the aftermath.

"We're not going to jump in and take sides," says Cal Giant marketing director Cindy Jewel. "We would prefer that everyone get along and work together to stay focused on helping the nonprofits and local community and tourism. That should be the bottom line." Jerry Beyersdorff, executive director of the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce, expresses similar dismay. "I'm really disappointed that it's come down to two festivals," he says. "And evidently to compete with one another. It seems a shame to me."

After the Watsonville City Council voted last week 6-1 to hold its own strawberry festival downtown after firing Peterson for breach of contract, the promoter made it clear he would also move forward with his festival, tentatively called the Monterey Bay Berry Festival. "I have no choice, I have to do the event. I have all my money invested," he says. Both festivals will be held on the same dates, Aug. 1-2, with the Berry Festival at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds and a city festival called the Watsonville Strawberry Festival at Monterey Bay held downtown.

Peterson has been accused of sneakily moving the festival from Ramsay Park, in the heart of Watsonville, to the fairgrounds, just on the city outskirts, a move that deprived the city of $10,000 in park usage fees. Though City Manager Carlos Palacios says this is a straightforward case of contract violation, Peterson charges that city staffers have had it out for him since he challenged their right to move the word "Watsonville" to the fore of the name "Monterey Bay Strawberry Festival at Watsonville"--the festival name for 14 years. The council approved the name change on Oct. 28.

Some, like Councilmember Manuel Bersamin, view the matter more as an issue of civic pride than contractual obligation. "I'm more worried about giving my young people a festival they can grow into and will someday be as well-known as [Gilroy's and Castroville's]," he says. "This individual has taken this opportunity from us."

When Bersamin heard that Malo, a Chicano band popular in the '70s, had been booked at the fairgrounds, he went a step further. "If we can hurt his profit, maybe he'll leave," he says. "I just wrote [Malo] a letter asking them not to come. I hope they'll say, 'We had no idea that the promoter had done this to the Latino community, and we as a band, we're going to look at that contract again.'" Peterson says he was shocked by the letter and said that Malo, who have worked with him for two years, assured him they'll still play the festival. Though no one is suing anyone else at this point, the word "lawsuit" seems to dangle threateningly in the air. "At some point I have to defend myself," says Peterson. "What if Malo had canceled?"

Separate is not necessarily equal, and this case is no exception. Peterson has big-name acts Malo with Jorge Santana, Sapo with Richard Bean and El Chicano booked for the grandstand. And though the city once believed it had secured the same carnival company Peterson was using, it ultimately defected to the fairgrounds, and Palacios says the downtown fair will feature smaller children's and toddlers' carnival rides. On the other hand, many residents may find it preferable to casually stroll to the downtown fair, where admission will be free. "The city wants to do a family-oriented festival," Palacios says.

The city expects to spend some $80,000 putting the festival on and hopes to break even. As it puts together its application materials and secures what it says are about 100 interested vendors, some organizations that want to work in the festival are finding themselves in an awkward position. Ron Sandidge, assistant principal at Pajaro Valley High School, says their sports teams are already locked into working at Peterson's festival, where they earn money for working things like the parking lot. "If someone had called a month ago and said, 'There's two functions, are you interested?,' we might have been in a position to talk," he says. Rosa Mendoza, director of the Pajaro Valley Children's Center, says she would rather participate in the city's festival. "The other one is not a Watsonville resident. If we want to invest or do anything, we'll go where revenue stays here," she says.

And still others are choosing to stay the hell out of it, like Tom Simmons, the general manager at the Watsonville Berry Co-op. "We normally would support monetarily and with donations, but I don't want to get involved until they get it all straightened out," he says. "[The split] impacts the community. For the industry, it's more of an embarrassment."


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