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What The Fuzz?: It used to be such a nice festival. Can't we all just get along?

Raspberries Over Strawberries

As Watsonville's two berry festivals prepare to face off this weekend, we review their short, messy histories.

By Jessica Lussenhop

IT STARTED OUT, simply enough, as a celebration of the crop that put Watsonville back on the map. The Monterey Bay Strawberry Festival had enjoyed 14 summers of peace and prosperity in various locations in and around town, where many of the men and women who pick the county's top crop live and work, and where nationally renowned apple orchards had once reigned supreme.

But in these not-so-innocent times, the festival became divided against itself, and in the chaos two competing festivals have emerged: festival promoter Leslie Peterson leading the Monterey Bay Berry Festival on the one side and city leaders championing the Watsonville Strawberry Festival at Monterey Bay on the other. Both are to be held this weekend. One festival will claim victory, the other will be ridden out of town on a rail (maybe). But the dust will not settle come Monday morn. Peterson is all but certain to sue, the City Council is mired in in-fighting and allegations of racism have entered into this very strangest of food fights. Suffice to say, the situation has gotten berry, berry sticky.

Where did the rot slip in? Let's recap. Flashback: the year was 2008, the president was George W. Bush and the Watsonville City Council had decided it was time the city came into its own, strawberry festival-wise. In an Oct. 28 vote, the council decided to move the word "Watsonville" to the fore of the festival name "Monterey Bay Strawberry Festival" in order to better promote a city whose reputation has suffered from gang violence. The festival's promoter, Leslie Peterson, objected because of what he said were business and marketing reasons. Things quickly turned from sweet to sour. "I say, Forget you," said Councilmember Antonio Rivas presciently. "He shouldn't be running the strawberry festival. We don't need him."

Though Peterson ultimately backed down, in late May, when he announced his decision to pluck the festival from Watsonville's Ramsay Park and move it to the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds just outside of town, the city called foul and fired him for breach of contract. "What else might be done without our knowledge, with the city of Watsonville's name on it?" said Councilmember Kimberly Petersen of the decision. Promoter Peterson announced almost immediately that his festival would move ahead as scheduled, and after a 6-1 council vote, the city countered that it would hold its own Strawberry Festival in downtown Watsonville, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel. "It was probably the most foolish decision they could have made," said Peterson.

Foolish or not, the line was drawn in the sand. Councilmember Manuel Bersamin is in hot soup for writing to Peterson's headlining act, Malo, asking them to pull out of the festival run by the "Anglo promoter" and instead support the City Council, which is "fighting to uplift our Raza." And Peterson, who says he's already taken a financial hit, is winding up to pitch the final, and perhaps inevitable, curveball in this parable: a lawsuit. Bersamin may be due for council censure, Councilmember Emilio Martinez is asking for his resignation and the Op-Ed pages of the Register-Pajaronian are buzzing with local movers and shakers' opinions about whether this is about being Latino or Anglo or just loco.

But in the meantime, county residents and tourists are left with a choice as epic as Coke vs. Pepsi: Which berry festival will earn their attendance? There are a few helpful differences. The Berry Festival will have national name acts such as Malo, El Sapo and Richard Bean, while the Strawberry Festival will have, in Peterson's words, "a bunch of 7-year-old girls" performing (well, that plus a clutch of local bands). The Strawberry Festival will have beer and wine for sale by the Freedom Rotary club, while the Berry Festival goers will be high and dry. The Berry Festival will host full-blown carnival rides, while the city has opted for tamer, family-oriented rides like the Merry-Go-Round. And the nonprofits have been cleaved neatly down the middle in terms of who is fundraising where.

Now only time will tell which festival will lord it over the other. "This year, one will be successful and one will not," predicts Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce director Jerry Beyersdorff. "The event that is not as successful will decide, 'Do we want to do this again or do we want to make an accommodation with the other event?,' which is what I would hope for."

And we are left to ask, at the end of the day: all this over a berry festival?

THE MONTEREY BAY BERRY FESTIVAL runs Saturday-Sunday, Aug. 1-2, 10am-9pm (carnival runs till 11pm Saturday, 10pm Sunday) at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds. $6.

THE WATSONVILLE STRAWBERRY FESTIVAL AT MONTEREY BAY runs Saturday-Sunday, Aug. 1-2, 10am-7pm in downtown Watsonville. Free.

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