James Ballew, a Bryant resident and director of Family Fest, the annual Independence Day tradition that has attracted thousands of families and generated thousands of dollars for the city of Bryant in the 13 years since its inception, wants to set the record straight.
Ballew is referring to comments made by Bryant Alderman Danny Steele in a guest column that appeared in the Jan. 12 edition of The Saline Courier.
"I have been quiet," Ballew said. "I do not have a dog in the fight; I am not running for public office. I have had no motivation to speak out, until now. They have brought my family into it."
Steele's editorial primarily targeted the actions of Bryant Mayor Jill Dabbs, claiming she knowingly permitted alcoholic beverages on city park property during Family Fest, by choosing to do nothing about it.
Steele went on to say that Ballew, having coordinated the event every year, should have known the park's rules and regulations, which prohibit alcohol.
Additionally, according to Steele, Ballew requested and received $20,000 of taxpayer money, only to request an additional $15, 000 later.
"The $15,000 was never approved by the City Council, but Mrs. Dabbs approved the payment anyway," Steele wrote.
“When the council requested receipts from Ballew, he did not provide them."
Ballew does not deny alcohol being in the hospitality house for entertainers and, as festival director, believes the rules are "left to interpretation.”
“I was in charge of making the decisions for three days. They (entertainers) request the alcohol, and we fulfill their requests, as long as it is not in public, which it is not, because it is in a separate, secure area behind walls,” Ballew said.
Because the performers live on the road, in tour buses and hotels, Ballew said he strives to provide the comforts of home.
“That is why we have a private green room. Yes, we technically had beer in that house. It was not for public consumption; it was not sold. We've even had gospel acts and praise bands who would request wine.
"We are talking about responsible adults, and we did nothing in that house (last July) that has not been done the previous 12 years, under every administration — council members and various elected officials —and it's never been a problem," Ballew said.
Former Bryant Mayors Paul Halley and Larry Mitchell challenge Ballew’s claims.
"I have absolutely no knowledge of any alcohol being consumed on any city property during my two terms as mayor. If I had, I would've put a stop to it," Halley said.
Larry Mitchell, who followed Halley as mayor, had the same recollection.
"Family Fest was at Mills Park the first three years of my term, and the last year it was held at Bishop Park. I have no knowledge of beer consumed, served or sold at any of the festivals," Mitchell said.
Ballew maintains that the annual festival, the single largest event in Saline County, is a safe environment. He said last year’s event included 14 live concerts in three nights, with "Grammy Award-winning acts."
Other events included a fireworks show, hot air balloons, a BMX show and a fishing derby, and the swimming pool was open, all free of charge.
According to Ballew, the only expense to attendees was a $5 parking fee, with the exception of merchandise and food. The monies collected for parking were returned to the city of Bryant, not Family Fest.
"We started Family Fest for the people of Bryant, not Danny Steele, Brenda Miller or Adrian Henley. We can't let three people ruin it for everybody because they are on a witch-hunt for the mayor. They are putting a black eye on the city," Ballew said. Alderman Miller said she did not attend the 2011 festival, because she was out of town. “However,” Miller said, "I got phone calls that there was a picture of the mayor with a beer sitting on the table that was posted on the 103.7 (The Buzz) photo gallery. When my constituents call, it is my responsibility to bring it to the council and parks committee to review."
Alderman Steele did attend, stating, "I watched people with VIP tags, not just entertainers, go in and out of the compound for two-and-a-half hours."
In response to questions regarding his unwillingness to provide receipts, Ballew said he did not provide these because he didn't want to give council members another reason to attack Mayor Dabbs. He believes facts have been twisted by some council members and taken out of context.
Generators for Family Fest also were questioned. Ballew said he received funds to rent them; however, they were later donated, by AHERN rentals, a local company. He then took the funds earmarked for generators and reallocated them to promotions.
"It was a win-win situation. We got the generators donated and AHERN and Family Fest received more visibility and exposure," he said.
"I have never received a penny from the city. The city of Bryant partially funds the event, and parking fees and sponsorships also help cover the cost of Family Fest. At times, I have personally helped make up the difference," he added.
According to Steele, Ballew also billed the city for a sound engineer that never materialized.
Ballew said there have been many positive contributions he has made to the city through Family Fest that the council members do not want to acknowledge, such as a $1,000 check presented to the Boys and Girls Club, representing proceeds from a BBQ contest.
Additionally, the hospitality house renovations were made by his family and other volunteers.
“We painted, installed new flooring in the kitchen, repaired the roof and took care of pest control. We did everything to make it nice for guests,” Ballew said.
The event director also noted that approximately $8,000 of electrical service provided at the park, because of inadequate electrical services the first two years, did not cost the city anything.
“Fleming Electric sponsored the materials and First Electric helped get it installed,” Ballew explained.
Ballew stated he began the annual Fourth of July celebration to teach his son to give back to the community.
“Since he was 2, I’ve dragged him to Family Fest and Toy Troopers,” Ballew said.
The 25-year-resident of Bryant is not certain he wants to bring Family Fest back to Bryant a 14th time. Upon reading Steele’s column, Ballew said his now 16-year-old son said, “Pops, let’s not do it anymore. They don’t appreciate what we do."
“He’s already ready to throw in the towel at 16. That’s sad. Bryant Family Fest is a great, safe experience for the people of Bryant and the surrounding areas.
"The people of Bryant elected Mayor Jill Dabbs. Let her do her job rather than having to constantly defend herself; stop embarrassing our city. Let the voters speak at the next election."