Column: Veterans in Aurora fired up over change of Fourth of July Parade to ‘procession’

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Turns out there’s nothing like a parade of controversies to keep the spotlight shining on downtown Aurora.

Following weeks of posturing between the city and organizers of the Pride Parade, the June event stepped off as planned, with triple overtime going to those working security after too few cops had signed up for the event that asked law enforcement not to march in uniform.

You likely remember this dustup well since it was only a couple weeks ago the drama was playing out. And now, with those colorful rainbow floats barely dismantled, we’ve got another parade brouhaha marching onto the front pages of our news.

Many residents are understandably in an uproar when word got out this week, via a memo to volunteers from the city’s community events manager, that the beloved Fourth of July Parade, arguably the biggest and most well-attended, will have a whole different look this year.

So different, it seems this Independence Day event will more closely resemble billboards-on-wheels for the city of Aurora than a grand community party celebrating the founding of our nation.

Aurora officials insist the new format is simply a better way of doing things – that the city-sponsored caravan now replacing a community parade can be enjoyed by more people, especially the elderly who could not make that trip to downtown Aurora.

Nice try but this “patriotism light” approach is not going down well with lots of folks, particularly veterans, who tend to get all fired up when red-white-and-blue events are in danger of fading away.

Which is what nearly happened back in 2011.

Facing tough Recession decisions, Mayor Tom Weisner declared early that year the Fourth of July Parade would be axed from the city budget. That announcement was quickly followed by another from Roosevelt-Aurora American Legion Post 84 Cmdr. Norris “Doc” Erickson and Ald. Stephanie Kifowit, a member of the post and now a state representative, who declared the veterans group was taking over the parade so the community could “continue to show our pride in our country.”

In a matter of months but with a lot of hard work, the post raised $30,000 to keep this tradition going. A couple years later, the city got back in the game, splitting the cost with the Legion 50/50 and taking on more of the operations.

“By 2019, the city was paying two-thirds and we were paying one-third,” noted current Post 84 Cmdr. Mike Eckburg, adding that the cost of the parade was reduced to around $15,000 to $19,000.

The partnership not only helped defray the city’s portion but worked well for the post, he told me, because the parade became its major fundraiser, as local businesses were so eager to contribute to the cause.

It was a longstanding relationship that worked well until COVID-19 hit. From that point on, Legion members say, they were shut out of all parade plans, including this year’s. Eckburg, who had “started working” on the post’s float for this July 4th, learned about the decision to turn a parade into a “vehicular procession” from a third party.

“It has ruffled a lot of feathers,” said the commander, noting that this news coming so shortly after the Pride Parade is not sitting well with veterans.

“This is our nation’s anniversary. Without our independence, there would be no Memorial Day Parade, no Pride Parade,” he said.

Which brings us to another parade debate.

One reason the city cited for its decision to change the format was that the Fourth of July Parade was becoming less popular, even describing the Memorial Day Parade as Aurora’s largest.

But Kifowit calls that excuse “baloney,” and accuses the city of “grossly underestimating” attendees for the July event.

“I’ve been in all these parades,” she said. “At one point, we had the (Fourth) count around 10,000.”

In other words, this parade is a big deal. People prepare for it long in advance. And “to pull the rug out from under them two weeks before,” Kifowit said, “is disrespectful to veterans and the community who want to take part in a parade.”

Those sentiments are echoed by Army veteran Steve Holt, who insists the parade should remain “in the heart of the city,” where people make an effort to come together to celebrate as a community, rather than wait for “the city to bring the parade to the people.”

While a “trolley of heroes” was mentioned as part of the city’s upcoming procession, as Holt points out, “there will be no bands, no cadets, no school participation.”

“People are stunned,” he continued. “This is not a community event. It’s just the city driving around with banners and passing out candy for the politicians.”

There is, naturally, plenty of speculation about the city’s “variety of factors” that contributed to this surprise decision. But lack of security is not one of them, said Aurora Police Department spokesman Paris Lewbel, noting this caravan going all over the city will require a similar number of officers as would a downtown parade.

Army veteran Scott Maxson told me he was not only “disappointed” and confused by the city’s “ambiguous” announcement, he felt “blindsided” by it.

“This is without doubt the most American holiday, when we should go all out to celebrate our nation’s birth, not make it simpler,” said the Post 84 member. “The military is all about logistics. Had we known about this earlier, we could have helped with all that.”

All of which only increases the resolve of these local vets to get this patriotic gathering back on track yet again.

“Fireworks are great,” said Maxson. “But it is not the same as a parade.”

Nor is a vehicular procession.

“We will do whatever is necessary to keep this important tradition going,” he vowed. “We will not let the Fourth of July Parade disappear.”

dcrosby@tribpub.com

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June 24, 2022 at 07:07AM

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