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Soapbox derby redux revs up disagreements

Marble Falls Soapbox Classic

A battle over the adult soapbox derby in Marble Falls continues as a new organization seeks to bring back the event, which was denied a permit last year by the city. File photo

News that a soapbox derby racer from Plains, Texas, might soon file a permit to bring the adult soapbox derby back to Marble Falls has stirred up controversy among the original racing organization. The Marble Falls-based National Adult Soapbox Derby Association has a 10-year history of holding the popular downtown event and never intended to give up racing altogether when it canceled its 2020 race, lead organizer Shannon Heep said.  

“We have contacted the city to inform them of our intentions to bring back the derby and reminded them that our hometown community event is a successful fundraiser,” Heep said. “We look forward to speaking with the city and downtown merchants in the future about bringing the derby back. Now is just not the time.”

What would have been the 11th annual Marble Falls Soapbox Classic planned for April 2020 was denied a permit by the city when organizers balked at canceling or shortening Sunday races, according to a notice on the website. That and other growing restrictions added by the city the past few years made it too difficult to produce a quality event, Heep said.

Mary Kay Ragan of Plains, who frequently raced at the Marble Falls event, is working on an application for a permit to hold a newly envisioned derby in October. She was disappointed when the derby was denied a permit last year and signed a web-based petition to bring the race back. She said she waited six months to see if the organization could work out its differences with the city before deciding to submit her own application.

A DailyTrib.com story about her intentions that was posted on Facebook generated some angry comments from readers

“I don’t want this to be a big fight,” Ragan said. “I didn’t steal anybody’s anything. No one has the market on this. It’s not their invention.”

The first Marble Falls event was held in 2010. As it grew in popularity and size, it also grew in sidewalk vendors, creating ill will with downtown merchants who complained to City Hall in recent years about blocked doorways and decreased business. Several shop owners took their concerns to a City Council meeting in January 2020, prior to the planned April race. 

“I’m not against the derby,” Main Street Consignments owner Belinda Kelley said at the meeting, adding that she pays $4,000 a month to have a business on Main Street and the derby costs her a lucrative weekend. “This is called the Hill Country. Move it to another hill.”

The city agreed that the Third Street location caused problems. Some officials also wanted the organization to trim the number of days from three to two. The permit was denied by the city because organizers did not meet all of the special event ordinance requirements, which can be found on the city’s webpage.

Ragan has suggested a new approach that would deal with those issues while retaining the downtown location.

“We do need to do it on Third Street — that is the issue,” she said. “We have to have access to public restrooms and parking.” 

The city has offered parking for participants on Avenue J between Second and Third streets as well as a nearby bank parking lot, according to Ragan. Golf carts could be used to ferry people who need help back and forth. Not as many streets would be closed down, and the event would only run for two days. Most important: No vendors allowed. 

“We want people to buy locally and use the current restaurants and shops when they come to the event,” she said. 

The money would still go to a local charity. Ragan plans to donate all profits to the Open Door Recovery House in Marble Falls, a residential addiction treatment facility for women. The original organizers also donated proceeds to different charities. In 2019, they raised $11,000 to send kids in foster care to a summer camp. In 2018, $14,000 went to CASA for the Highland Lakes Area. 

Ragan has yet to submit an application, but she is working on it and has plenty of time. Permits must be submitted 90 days before the event. They go from City Secretary/Public Information Officer Christina McDonald’s desk to a newly formed committee for review. The committee includes a representative from several departments, including fire, police, and public works. As per Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders, the application also has to include a COVID-19 plan. 

“No decision is made until the committee reviews the application,” McDonald said. “We usually do it pretty promptly. All special event applications are considered on a case-by-case basis.” 

Meanwhile, Heep said her group is not giving up the event. 

“We stated our intentions in April (2020) to bring the derby back,” she said. “Because of the current economic situation, now is not the time to try to produce a successful fundraiser. Our small businesses need us to support them. We don’t want to be knocking on their doors and asking for donations and sponsorships right now.” 

suzanne@thepicayune.com