By BOB OLIVER
DEARBORN — The annual Arab International Festival may be trading the openness of its usual location on Warren to an enclosed park for this year’s event.
The city is looking to move the festival, which will take place June 15 to 17, from the section of Warren between Schaefer and Wyoming where it has been held in past years to Ford Woods Park, which is near the corner of Greenfield and Ford roads.
The event is sponsored by the American Arab Chamber of Commerce and includes music, games and booths set-up for businesses and food sales of numerous cultural cuisines.
The decision has not been finalized, but Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. said negotiations are under way to move the festival to the more restricted park. He said there are several issues being worked out including the cost to host the event and a wish by the festival organizers to stay true to the original intent of the celebration.
“I’m working with the AACC to make sure that they can afford to do it and that the city can afford to support it,” O’Reilly said. “I’ve made a couple proposals to them to show how we can do it and how to mitigate some costs and we’ll continue to work together to get everything worked out.”
O’Reilly said that the festival organizers were concerned about additional costs on their side and that aim of the festival would not be consistent with the original goals of the event if it were moved from Warren.
“There was originally an economic basis for the festival,” O’Reilly said. “The festival itself was born out of trying to market certain investments.”
The first festivals occurred on Dix Avenue in the 1980s as a way to draw attention to local businesses and activities. Over time the focus of businesses and investors switched over to Warren, so the AACC moved the festival there to allow visitors to see the work that was being done there and support local businesses.
O’Reilly said he did not think the move to Ford Woods Park would detract from the history of the event.
O’Reilly also said demonstrators attending the last few festivals also have played a role in the decision to move it to Ford Woods.
“We went through the ’90s and 2000s with no issues at all,” O’Reilly said. “All of a sudden around 2009 it became a focal point for some individuals to use the festival as a platform for their message, which was not directly related to what the festival was about. That’s an element that’s going to be there now.”
According to published reports, the city had litigation brought against it by a few different festival attendees in the last four years. A 2009 case involved a Christian missionary who attended the festival and was removed from the event for distributing religious leaflets. The following year four Christian missionaries were arrested at the festival though they were cleared of all charges after their trial.
O’Reilly added that he felt that incidents between demonstrators and festivals attendees in recent years are overshadowing the event itself and that “people around the country are getting an image of Dearborn that we know isn’t true.”
O’Reilly said that moving the festival to Ford Woods Park could not only help with security for the event, but it could also be a better location because it would allow better parking options for visitors. It would allow the city to begin setting up earlier and tearing down later because a major street would not have to be shut down during a weekday.
He added that the size of the park was optimal.
“I picked the park because I was trying to stay as close as possible to Warren while making sure the site was large enough to handle the crowds,” O’Reilly said.
The AACC estimates that 250,000 visit the festival during the weekend.
“We’ve done the layouts of the park and the AACC have had their carnival vendor over there to look at it,” O’Reilly said. “The site can definitely support the festival.”
O’Reilly added that a final decision for the move should happen in the next week.
Fay Baydoun, AACC executive director and AIF director, did not respond to calls by press time.
(Bob Oliver can be reached at [email protected].)