The Independence Chamber of Commerce is restructuring some of the ways it runs its most well-known event – the Santa-Cali-Gon Days festival held on the Square on Labor Day weekend – but not all of that it sitting well with some longtime volunteers, some of whom have quit.

The Independence Chamber of Commerce is restructuring some of the ways it runs its most well-known event – the Santa-Cali-Gon Days festival held on the Square on Labor Day weekend – but not all of that it sitting well with some longtime volunteers, some of whom have quit.

The chamber’s new president and CEO, Kim Kimbrough, is emphatic that festivalgoers’ experience – live music, booth after booth of food, tent after tent of crafts – will not change, but the chamber has to make internal changes.

“We’re trying to save it, is what we’re trying to do,” he said Friday.

Although Kimbrough insists that the chamber is not altering its overall approach to Santa-Cali-Gon, some fear a drift from an event that allows about 80 non-profits – service clubs, churches, Scout groups – to raise money. They also say the exodus of much of the chamber staff since Kimbrough’s arrival last fall worries them because organizing the four-day event takes work all year long.

“There’s a thousand and five details to contend with,” said Terri Steele, a member of the fair board, which is a chamber committee. She was on the board for 18 years, including three of the last four as chair. She quit a few days ago.

“I think that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” she said of her decision to leave.

There are more than 700 vendors at the festival, from the non-profits like the Optimists selling their famous Opti-dogs to for-profit companies such as the one from Louisiana selling gator on a stick, plus all those selling items in what the chamber calls one of the largest craft shows in the country. All of those contracts have to be sent out. Entertainment has to be booked. Sponsorships are lined up. Steele said things that should be in place by this time of year aren’t.

“We have a 45-page timeline we work work off of,” Steele said, adding that chamber staff has a crucial role in keeping all that moving ahead. With recent departures, she’s concerned.

“Two and a half people cannot do the work of seven and a half,” Steele said.

Kimbrough said things are moving along.

“I think we’ll be OK. I really do,” he said, adding that exciting announcements about this year’s entertainment are in the works.

There’s also a concern about how the non-profits are being treated. Some might be moved, and some could be charged more. The “deep discounts” that Kimbrough says they have enjoyed up to now will stay – if those organizations join the chamber. The chamber, he said, fronts a lot of the costs for insurance and other things.

“If they’re not a chamber member, there’s gonna be a charge. ... It’s a fairness issue,” he said.

Eric Knipp, who’s on the fair board but said he’s on the fence about staying, sees a worry there. He leads a local Scout troop that, like many non-profits, depends on Santa-Cali-Gon.

“We couldn’t run our troop without it. It’s our entire budget,” he said.

Those groups should be the focus, he said.

“From the fair board perspective, this is a community event,” Knipp said.

Kimbrough didn’t disagree, but he said last year’s festival was bad financially and another such year could be catastrophic for the chamber. It rained hard for the first two days, and for the first time in festival history the events for Friday evening were canceled. The fair opened a couple of hours late Saturday morning, but fair weather – and festivalgoes – didn’t show up until late in the day.

The problem is that chamber had fronted many of the expenses, and now was looking at greatly diminished revenue and had little reserve to cover the difference.

“Unfortunately the money had already been spent,” Kimbrough said.

The chamber does make money up front from booth fees, but it also gets a healthy slice of the beer revenues, as Kimbrough described it, and two days of lost revenue hurt. Country singer Joe Diffie was rained out Friday night – but the chamber was contractually obliged to pay him.

“It was five figures,” Kimbrough said.

A repeat of weather that bad – at least in two years in a row – is unlikely, Kimbrough said, but the chamber has to have contingencies in place. Otherwise, he said, if weather that bad happened again, the future of the festival itself – and chamber’s overall mission – could be in danger.

“We’re not trying to make more money,” Kimbrough said. “We’re trying to make it more predictable year in and year out.”

The beer contract is up and is being restructured. Fees for for-profit booths are going up. Other changes are possible. For example, parking gets tight around the Square, so there’s a free shuttle bus from a couple of remote sites. But that means the cost of insurance and gas, so the chamber is looking for a sponsor for that service. Otherwise, there could be a $1 fee (kids free).

“If we get a sponsor, we won’t have to,” Kimbrough said.

Still, Knipp said half of the fair board’s roughly 15 members – people who put in a lot of hours especially in the weeks leading up to Labor Day – have quit. That, coupled with the staff turnouver, is a worry.

“I don’t know how they can get Santa-Cali-Gon pulled off,” he said.

He and Steele said they’re not averse to change but the changes they’ve seen are worrisome.

“We have a CEO who’s very confident in making changes to a festival that he’s never attended,” Steele said.

Kimbrough was hired to replace Rick Hemmingsen, who left a year ago after 20 years in the position. The chamber had an interim president for most of the year as the board searched for someone new, and Kimbrough came on in October, with clear orders from the board to make some changes. He had said repeatedly that 2013 will be a key transition year but things will get better after that.

“This is not change for the change’s sake. This is change that’s necessary,” he said, adding, “We just cannot continue to operate the way we’ve been operating.”

He said he didn’t want to lose staff or volunteers but not everyone likes change, and he said some chamber members who have been on the sidelines for a few years have said they’ll step up and serve on the fair board.

Kimbrough stressed that the estimated 200,0000 visitors to Santa-Cali-Gon will see the same event they’ve come to expect.

“All the changes are really behind-the-scenes stuff,” he said.

Once those are in place, the chamber ought to be able to ride out whatever come along.

“As long as you have good weather and the crowds are increasing, you’re going to be OK,” he said.