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Despite concerns, Zozobra likely to stay at Fort Marcy Park

SANTA FE, N.M. — The annual burning of Zozobra has skyrocketed in popularity in the past few years, raising anew questions about whether the venue near downtown Santa Fe that has hosted the event for nearly a century is big enough to handle the growing crowd.

But, with no obvious replacement locale to host the event, Zozobra organizers and city officials are looking to make improvements to the historic Fort Marcy Park.

Santa Fe Police Capt. James Lamb said at a Public Safety Committee meeting at City Hall on Tuesday that an estimated 56,000 people attended the 92nd burning of Old Man Gloom this year and suggested that the beloved event may need to find a new home.

About 18,000 people attended Zozobra in 2012, amid poor weather and complaints among Santa Feans about increasing admission costs, and longer and more elaborate staging of the traditional torching.

But the attendance shot up to about 36,000 the following year after new organizer Ray Sandoval took over, lowered ticket prices and returned to a simpler version of the burning ritual.

At his urging, in 2014, the event was moved up about a week, from the Thursday night before Fiesta weekend – a school night – to the Friday of Labor Day weekend.

The 2015 burning drew in a record 48,000 people before yet another attendance record was reached this year. But, with success has come problems.

“I think it’s time that we look at a different venue,” Lamb said Tuesday. “It’s just overgrowing.”

In an interview later in the week, Lamb was more circumspect about the need for a bigger home of Zozobra. He said two fields at Fort Marcy – the baseball field and adjacent Magers Field, separated by an arroyo and a stand of trees – combined have a capacity of 88,000, so the biggest concern is making sure the event continues to expand in a safe manner.

“We have room to grow, but can we do that safely?” Lamb said.

Sandoval reiterated his previously stated position that he doesn’t plan on moving the burning elsewhere anytime soon. But he said some changes need to be made.

“As of right now, we’re committed to Fort Marcy as being Zozobra’s home for the near future, but we want to have a conversation with the city on improvements to the field,” he said.

The biggest safety issue for Fort Marcy Park – where Zozobra has been held since either 1933 or 1934, according to Sandoval’s estimates – is the condition of the bridges over the arroyo that connect Magers Field with the baseball field where the burning takes place.

There have been three bridges in the past, but the big one in the middle collapsed slightly from the weight of people standing on it toward the end of the event last year, Lamb said, and it was removed before this year’s burning.

Police elected not to use the two remaining bridges this year out of safety concerns and instead directed people to three other bridges on the other side of the baseball field toward Old Taos Highway.

But revelers decided to use just one bridge on that side, something Lamb likened to “pushing an elephant through a straw.” There were also complaints that some people who bought tickets weren’t allowed onto the crammed-full baseball field.

Lamb said the burning was delayed 15 minutes because there was still a large number of people trying to get into the park and police didn’t want them to “rush” into the area.

Police opened the two bridges to Magers Field to use as an exit after the burning, but said people still chose to use the one bridge they came in on.

“That is not a good exit plan,” Sandoval said. “People will get hurt if we have an emergency and everyone was going through that bridge.”

City Councilor Chris Rivera said $600,000 is set aside for bridge improvements and that construction should start early next year.

One idea being thrown out by the city is keeping the two side bridges to Magers Field and putting a much wider bridge than before in the middle, but Sandoval said he would like to see the arroyo that separates Magers Field from the baseball field replaced with a culvert so the two fields can essentially be connected.

Although Fort Marcy has its issues, it doesn’t seem like there’s a better place to host the burning in a city that is short of huge, empty spaces.

Sandoval said the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, which owns the rights to Zozobra and organizes the event every year, researched several different locations when he took over in 2013, like the Municipal Recreation Complex off N.M. 599, the Downs at Santa Fe, mid-city’s Ragle Park, the new Southwest Area Node (SWAN) Park and even Santa Fe High, but each venue had significant shortcomings.

The MRC, with only one major road in and out of the area, would pose a parking and traffic nightmare, Sandoval said, and having it at Santa Fe Downs, the defunct horse-racing track which is outside city limits, could bring about unwanted shenanigans due to its more rural location. All that leads him to believe that Fort Marcy is still the best place for the event.

“Each of those presented more problems than Fort Marcy and Magers Field,” Sandoval said. “Zozobra’s popularity is definitely on the rise and it would be irresponsible to say Zozobra is going to be (at Fort Marcy) forever, but I just don’t think there’s another venue.”

There’s also a historic aspect to hosting the burning at Fort Marcy. Rivera, who grew up in Santa Fe and said he’s been going to Zozobra since he was a kid, said he is “not interested in moving it” and it doesn’t appear that anyone is seriously considering a new location anytime soon, even if Fort Marcy needs big improvements to handle Old Man Gloom’s growing popularity.

“We love Fort Marcy,” Sandoval said. “That’s Zozobra’s home.”

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