What started as a day of celebration for some, ended as an afternoon of frustration for others, as thousands of people descended on the Atlanta Cricket Fields in north Forsyth on Saturday, March 23, for the 14th annual Sewa International USA Holi celebration.
According to Forsyth County authorities, hundreds of vehicles clogged Keith Bridge Road, reportedly causing half-hour-long backups as attendees of the event attempted to enter the sporting complex for parking and turning vehicles spilled out onto the small road.
Deputies stationed at the event eventually closed the sporting complex to vehicles and directed people down Keith Bridge Road to alleviate the traffic backups, according to Cpl. Doug Rainwater of the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.
"They did their best to keep Keith Bridge moving, but it was just too many cars and too many people," Rainwater said.
Patrons of the event began to park in the grass along Keith Bridge Road, Rainwater said, which created a new problem of pedestrians on the busy roadway.
“That created a small problem, with pedestrians,” Rainwater said. “As we know, Keith Bridge is a very busy thoroughfare between Hall County and Forsyth County. It was just too many people for the venue."
According to Sumanth Yellanki, founder and CEO of the Atlanta Cricket Fields, prior to Saturday’s event, they were confident that the site could handle the event, but as more and more people arrived, they were caught off guard by the sheer numbers.
"We were confident in handling the crowds, but the crowd was even way more than what they expected," Yellanki said.
Yellanki said that they will be looking at how they approach future events and how they can prevent similar problems from happening in the future.
"This event went beyond our expectations,” Yellankis said. “Because of which we had an opportunity to learn certain lessons. The plan for next year is to work with the local community, the local churches, as well as the local authorities and county, because it would have been avoided 100 percent if we would have expected this and worked with the local officials.”
Yellanki said that they already have sit-downs planned with the county and local community groups to work out a solution that fits everyone’s needs.
"One thing that we as the facility management missed was not keeping our nearby community informed,” he said. “That's a very big lesson that we've learned and one thing that we will make sure that will happen ... so it doesn’t happen in the future.”
District 4 Forsyth County Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills said that in less than a day after the event took place, she received many different messages and calls from local residents about the event’s impact on their day and concerns about future events.
Because the space was not zoned as an event facility and special event permits were not obtained for the celebration, Mills said the county was in the dark on what was taking place and was caught off guard just like everyone else.
"It was not anticipated in their zoning,” she said. "Had it been presented as an event facility, then the parking calculations would have been different, the bathrooms would have been different. Everything would have been calculated in a different matter, even the ways you get cars in and out."
Mills said that due to community concern, they planned to discuss the issue at Tuesday’s Forsyth County Board of Commissioners work session and could consider a new county-initiated zoning condition amendment about parking for events like Holi festival.
"That's where we've got to look deeper into it," Mills said. "I'm looking to get more input from planning and the county attorney about the best course of action."
Due to overwhelming interest for next year’s event, Sewa International has already announced their plans to repeat the event at the Atlanta Cricket Fields, on March 14, 2020.
In a statement to the Forsyth County News, a Sewa representative thanked Atlanta area residents for their interest in the festivities and said that they would be working to improve the event for 2020.“With the help of county officials and the police, whose support we have always relied on, we will make sure that passage to and out of the next Holi event will be smoother," they stated.