By SHELLY WILKISON
Organizers say strict enforcement of permitting requirements at the county level may create some roadblocks that could impact the bottom line of Liberty Hill’s largest fundraising event in 2013.
For years, the Liberty Hill BBQ Cook-off has been the leader when it comes to community fundraising — raising more than $27,000 this year to purchase livestock for local FFA students.
What started about 17 years ago with about a dozen cookers in the lot behind the VFW Post downtown now attracts as many as 150 teams from across the state to the Indian Mound Ranch.
While the growth is good, generating more money than ever before for local agriculture students, it comes with a price. In 2013, the event will require a Mass Gathering permit from Williamson County, which carries all types of requirements designed to keep the event and its attendees safe.
LHLA President Kenny Adair says some requirements will cost the Association money off the top, dipping into profit that normally benefits students.
But aside from anticipated additional expenses for security, portable toilets and other items — many of which may not be known until event time in April — Adair said cooking teams will now be required to obtain county permits to serve the public.
With new regulations, expenses and additional paperwork, Adair said the event is becoming a full-time job for what seems to be a dwindling number of volunteers. He said in 2012, it was five families who did all of the work to put on the event — a feat that will be impossible in 2013.
Because of the new requirements, Adair said he asked LHLA members in recent weeks to vote on whether or not to continue the cook-off.
“Only 22 families of the 92 in our membership attended and it won by two votes,” Adair said.
He said most of the families voting yes have cooking teams and he remains concerned about not having enough volunteers to manage the event.
“They said yes and voted to have it. That’s lovely,” he said. “But, just because LHLA voted to have it, doesn’t mean it will happen.”
He explained that new requirements could become too costly, or not enough cooking permits may be presented ahead of time, or there may not be enough people willing to volunteer to help with the event. Another meeting was scheduled at press time this week to confirm volunteers.
“We love the cookers to show up and the cookers think they are helping us by cooking,” he said. “But, it takes more than money to do all of this.”
As an example, he noted the Holy Smokers cooking team comprised of representatives of area churches.
“That translates to 15-20 families that help the churches, but don’t come out of the church booth to help the cook-off,” he said.
At the last organizational meeting, Adair said a representative of the Williamson County & Cities Health District presented the permitting requirements and outlined what cooking teams will need for compliance. Each team will be required to purchase a temporary food establishment permit for $35 and will have to pass an inspection at set up on Friday, April 19.
Adair said it is not difficult to obtain the permit, but those who do not, cannot serve the public. He says therein lies the risk to the Association.
“We made more than $8,000 on tip jars last year,” he said. “If a cooker can’t serve the public, there’s no tip jar. And if there’s no tip jar, we don’t benefit from them being there.”
Adair said in years past, some teams would just show up unannounced and start cooking. Beginning Jan. 1, 2013, the Association will begin taking reservations for space and referring teams to WCCHD to complete the permitting process. The deadline to obtain a permit is 45 days prior to the event.
Adair said 2013 will be the first year the County has chosen to require the cook-off to have a Mass Gathering Permit.
The Texas Mass Gatherings Act applies to events held outside a municipality that are expected to attract more than 2,500 people, or 500 people if 51 percent or more may be younger than age 21 and alcohollic beverages will be “sold, served or consumed.” The event is also considered a mass gathering if people will remain for more than five continuous hours or for any amount of time during a period from 10 p.m. through 4 a.m.
While judging takes place on Saturday, teams arrive in Liberty Hill the day before to start cooking — a process that continues overnight.
Adair said he can’t be sure if 2,500 people attended the cook-off in 2012, but there is no “skirting” the other conditions that qualify the event as a mass gathering under state law.
“With this permit requirement, they will tell us how many officers (to provide security) we need, how many portable toilets we need,” he said, adding that requirements are also in place regarding the disposal of water and trash.
Adair said that the consumption of alcohol continues to be an issue, but there’s no doubt that the cook-off will not raise as much money without it.
“I have asked for ideas that would make enough money as the cook-off that are not alcohol related becuase I still think there’s something wrong with that,” he said. “But I’ve heard none. Unfortunately, alcohol seems to loosen the purse strings.”