Hog Day has adapted to changes in its name, the weather and organizers, but the 36th annual event met its match this year after a hurricane pushed it into early voting season.
The volunteer-led, family event preserves local traditions and brings economic and other benefits to the community, said Craig Lloyd, Optimist Club president and Hog Day organizer. He estimated the event has an economic impact of at least $1 million.
“I think that’s one of the things that’s been so great with us,” Lloyd said. “It’s that secret sauce, because they know we’re all volunteers, they know we’re doing it out of love for this community, and they know we want to see the impact on these groups that help us.”
This year’s event — planned for Sept. 14-15 — would have supported local church, civic and school youth programs, Hurricane Florence relief efforts, and the family of Orange Rural firefighter Jeff Holden, who died in August.
Hog Day raised about $17,000 for local groups last year, Lloyd said, including Chapel Hill’s Ronald McDonald House, Cedar Grove Ruritan Club, 4-H Hummingbird Club, United Voices of Efland, Walnut Grove United Methodist Church youth program, and Hurricane Harvey and Irma relief efforts. Another $5,000 supported Optimist Club programs, projects and services, he said.
This year’s event got off track when Hurricane Florence hit. On Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Commissioners voted 5-1 to deny a permit that would have rescheduled the event for Nov. 2-3 at River Park in downtown Hillsborough.
Commissioner Earl McKee voted against the motion.
The concern, commissioners said, is those are also the last days of early voting at the adjacent Board of Elections office. Hog Day could have a major effect on voter access to the Board of Elections building and parking lot, county and Board of Elections officials said.
Elections office data shows the last two days of the 2014 midterms attracted over 1,700 voters to the Board of Elections voting site, Deputy County Manager Travis Myren said. This year, over 2,000 voters are expected, he said.
Hog Day organizers met Sept. 19 with representatives from the Hillsborough Police Department, Orange County Sheriff’s Office, Orange County Parks and Recreation, and the Hillsborough Visitors Bureau, organizer Al Hartkopf said.
“The feeling around the table that day … was we needed to strike early in November or we needed to put it off — just not do it, because we would get into the holiday season,” Hartkopf said.
The county brought its concerns to the group at an Oct. 1 meeting, Myren said. They asked Hog Day organizers to move the event to Saturday and Sunday — Nov. 3-4 — or to a different weekend.
Moving the event seems like “the way forward,” Commissioner Mark Marcoplos said.
“You talked about the large number of people in town,” he said. “It’s inconceivable that that wouldn’t affect the number of people who vote that day … [and] I’m still not convinced that if you really put your mind to it that Saturday and Sunday wouldn’t work.”
Hartkopf noted that Hillsborough already has Sunday events scheduled for River Park and downtown on Sunday. That day also is not feasible for the many churches that participate in the festival, Lloyd said.
“We can’t do it to the churches,” he said. “I’m going to church that morning, and I think most of our volunteers are going to go there.”
The nonprofit Orange County Optimist Club took over the Hog Day Festival in 2014, after the Hillsborough/Orange County Chamber of Commerce announced it would no longer sponsor the event.
Hogg Day began in 1982 as an Independence Day celebration and Hillsborough Area Chamber of Commerce fundraiser. In 2013, it was renamed Hogg Day in honor of James Hogg, a Scottish merchant who moved to North Carolina in 1774.
Hogg, a partner in the Transylvania Co., UNC trustee and patriot leader, lived near River Park and is buried two blocks away.
In 2014, the Optimist Club moved the event to Efland. It returned to downtown Hillsborough in 2016, and moved from June to September to take advantage of cooler autumn temperatures.
The organizers had a plan for routing this year’s festival traffic away from the elections office and its parking lot. They also offered to set up a booth at the event encouraging people to vote.
“We think this can be a great spotlight, drive more people to the Board of Elections,” Lloyd said. “We’re willing to accommodate and adapt and do what we can to keep this alive.”
McKee agreed it would be tough to hold both events at the same time, but said it is possible. Other commissioners, while saying it’s a tough decision, said their priority is protecting public access to the polls.
“I have no doubt that y’all are trying to do all you can to try and accommodate all the people who want to come and vote,” Commissioner Barry Jacobs said, “but the fact remains that there are forces in our society that are trying to make it very difficult, and we don’t want to make that more true in Orange County than it has to be.”
Lloyd said the Optimist Club has met twice since the meeting to talk about other options. Vendors and sponsors interested in getting a refund should contact them by email or through Facebook, he said.
Lloyd also noted the many people who have offered suggestions for how to keep the event going. A smaller event may be possible early next year, he said.
“We’re just very blessed by the overwhelming support of people giving suggestions about when to do, where to do it, how to do it,” Lloyd said. “We’d like to thank the sponsors, hundreds of volunteers and town of Hillsborough for their support. We’ll be back to making a difference and BBQ before you know it.”