Updates to the Alameda July 4 Parade

Alameda plans to hire a permanent July 4 parade coordinator as volunteers dwindle amid increasing responsibilities. For now, the route remains the same.


Photo by Maurice Ramirez

For the past 43 years, Alameda has defied the odds by putting on one of the country’s largest — or rather longest — Fourth of July parades with only an all-volunteer staff. But due in part to a lack of fresh-faced volunteers willing to take on the security responsibilities required to put on huge pop-up events such as Alameda’s Fourth extravaganza, that’s about to change.

In January, on the advice of a report written by the city’s parks and recreation department head, Amy Wooldridge, the city council voted unanimously to hire a coordinator for the parade. The full-time position will pay $72,338 annually. The duties of the eventual hire, called a “recreation assistant,” will be split between coordinating the parade and other city events. But initially at least the focus will be on organizing the parade.

According to Wooldridge, Alameda’s hiring its own coordinator is cheaper than bringing in an outside event planner, a cost she estimated at $143,000. The city and parks and recreation will split the cost of the employee’s salary.

The reason a professional parade organizer is needed to carry on the tradition of the massive parade that draws up to 70,000 spectators is that the army of volunteers is needed to put on the spectacle — an undertaking that begins with a 7 a.m. 5-kilomater race with up to a 1,000 participants, continues with a 3.2 mile parade throughout the city, complete with floats, marching bands, 2,500 assorted revelers including 125 horses, two bulls, and one zebra, and winds up with a festival honoring the Coast Guard — is dwindling.

One of the main reasons for the exodus of the 50-plus volunteers is that putting on a public event these days increasingly means making sure it’s safe, a major concern since the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing — an issue brought even closer to home by last summer’s Gilroy Garlic Festival shootings.

And while no one argues that this should be a top concern, it’s also not exactly a skill found in the average parade volunteer’s wheelhouse. Despite this reality, some volunteers in recent years have been pressed into working security detail at vulnerable intersections along the parade route to save money, raising concerns.

In her staff report recommending hiring a parade coordinator, Wooldridge wrote that “volunteers have been utilized to assist at the intersections to offset costs, but in recent years, it has become extremely difficult to recruit volunteers, and there are a variety of complications and concerns that arise from using volunteers for security staffing.”

Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, who grew up on the island, put the main issue with having an all-volunteer parade more succinctly. She asks whether or not “you really want a volunteer” preventing an angry motorist from driving through an intersection during the parade. “We may have been expecting too much from our volunteers. It’s a parade, but it’s a major public event, and we have to be smart and sophisticated about security, and that’s going to require more than a volunteer effort.

“These events don’t run themselves,” said Ashcraft, who added that “nobody’s getting younger. This was a very big undertaking. Each year, it was needing more city funds.” However, she said that the mindset at city hall has always been clear. “The overwhelming consensus is we want to keep doing the parade.”

One idea to reduce costs that’s been discussed is reducing the length of the parade — officially described as the second-longest in the country even though it is believed to be the longest, a fact that could not be verified; although apparently it is the longest west of the Mississippi in the United States. Traditionally, it has begun at Lincoln Avenue and Park Street and winds up on Webster Street. The parade will continue the tried and true route this year, but Wooldridge advocates looking at alternatives as a way to save money.

A longtime volunteer who supports hiring a coordinator is Jim Franz. “Over the years, the nature of the parade regarding public safety has changed,” said the 30-year parade vet. “The city has been doing the heavy lifting” on parade security. As an example, he noted that street closures are already handled by the city staff. “It was just time” to hire a parade coordinator. “It’s a natural progression.” Or, as Ashcraft said, “We’re just formalizing an arrangement.”

Echoing Franz’ sentiments is 17-year parade committee president Barbara Price. “We’re happy the city can take it over and continue to make it available to the community. The committee has found it increasingly difficult to put on such a large event.” Price said the focus of the volunteers will now shift to the assisting Alameda’s firefighters in their annual holiday toy drive.

Wooldridge said the total budget for the parade is $268,000 with approximately $30,000 expected to come from business donors and parade registration fees. In addition, the city “was already expending $185,000 annually for the past several years for public works and police staffing and equipment as well as traffic personnel.”

The money comes from the city’s general fund and is used for traffic control, additional police, outside security, and parking heavy-duty trucks at six crowded parade route intersections to prevent someone from driving into bystanders.

As the city’s costs for footing the bill for the parade rise, Ashcraft wants to explore involving more local businesses in helping to carry some of the load. Noting that other cities help cover the costs of their parades with sponsorships from local businesses, she envisions Alameda following suit.

“I am confident there are businesses that would contribute some level of sponsorship,” said Ashcraft. She even suggested the possibility of selling the naming rights to the parade to raise money. 

In the meantime, however, “The parade will go on,” said Ashcraft.