gilroy garlic festival pyro chefs gilroy presbyterian church
The Gilroy Garlic Festival returned for its 41st edition with a drive-thru Gourmet Alley experience and famous pyro chefs at Gilroy Presbyterian Church on July 24, 2021. Photo: Juan Reyes

City officials and Gilroy Garlic Festival representatives gathered for a meeting Oct. 24 to discuss the future of the iconic event and its ongoing challenges.

The Gilroy Garlic Festival Association, which organizes the event, announced earlier in 2022 that it would not hold its traditional gathering for the foreseeable future, based on skyrocketing insurance premiums.

It was a sentiment that was repeated during the meeting, with the association’s board members saying they are working toward reimagining the festival that has been a Gilroy staple for more than four decades and has received worldwide acclaim.

“None of us envision an 80,000- to 100,000-person event ever again,” board member Greg Bozzo said.

Festival President Jeff Speno said the festival was able to distribute $40,000 among 20 local charities and nonprofits thanks to its series of events in 2022, which were a golf tournament, a concert and a Gourmet Alley food experience at a football game between Gilroy and Christopher high schools.

The goal is to have a “much smaller festival” in 2023, he said, with about 5,000-10,000 guests over a two-day period.

“We’ve been approached by a few different venues outside of the city of Gilroy who are looking at hosting our event,” Speno said. “We are currently not looking at anything within the city of Gilroy. That’s not to say that can’t change, but at this point all of the venues we are looking at are outside the city.”

Mayor Marie Blankley prefaced the meeting by clarifying the City of Gilroy only processes the permits for special events, while the Garlic Festival Association is responsible for organizing the actual event.

Being that the festival was at the city-owned Christmas Hill Park, Gilroy must turn to its municipal insurance pool authority to determine the “necessary insurance requirements to protect the public’s assets,” she said.

Gilroy’s Human Resources Director/Risk Manager LeeAnn McPhillips said prior to the 2019 shooting at the festival, where three people were killed and 17 others were injured, the Municipal Pooling Authority, of which the city and 19 other municipalities are a part of, required insurance coverage of $6 million for the festival.

However, that number rose to $10 million after 2019, according to McPhillips, based on the MPA’s assessment of the festival’s recent history and overall climate of risk surrounding such large-scale events.

The ongoing litigation the city and festival face from the victims of the shooting also play a role. McPhillips added that the litigation still remains in the discovery phase three years after the incident, and about 30 staff are continuing to give their depositions, among other factors required by the court.

Speno said the festival association could not find an insurance company willing to give them a $10 million policy. He added that with the original $6 million policy, it cost the association about $120,000. It is unknown how much more the premiums would be with the increased coverage.

Councilmember Fred Tovar asked Speno if the festival has looked at ways of getting others involved in fundraising for the event and picking up corporate sponsorships to help with costs.

Speno responded that the festival does have sponsors, and it is able to support itself at its current level of activities, but anything more could be difficult.

“If the festival cannot make some profit where we can give it back to the community, what’s the point of going forward?” he said.

Tovar said he understood Speno’s position, but he saw it differently.

“I’m looking at it as, let’s get this back up and running and over the course of time we can get back to that level,” he said.

Bozzo asked if the city could get the festival association to the table with the Municipal Pooling Authority to work out issues with insurance, but McPhillips said the MPA doesn’t typically meet with representatives of specific events.

Longtime festival volunteer John Zekanoski said he was encouraged by the meeting, with council members asking how the city can help bring the Garlic Festival back.

“I’m a little encouraged, because I think we have only one problem to solve, and that’s this risk thing,” he said. “If we somehow figure out that one problem, we might be able to get this festival going again.”

Larry Mickartz, who has been active with the festival throughout its history and recently co-wrote a book with his wife J. Chris on the event, said there are many other factors that could help the festival move forward, such as a scaled-down affair.

“Those things need to be looked at carefully, but we need to bring this back,” he said. “The community needs it. One word of caution to the festival association: don’t take it out of town.”


Festival benefits nonprofits

The Gilroy Garlic Festival Association announced Oct. 24 that it distributed $40,000 to 20 local organizations.

They are:

Gourmet Alley High School Football Event

• Gilroy High School                         

• Christopher High School

Volunteer Hours Earned

• Gilroy High School Cheer

• Dreampower Horsemanship

Grants Awards

• Boy Scout Troop #730

• Christopher High School Choir 

• Gilroy Presbyterian Church

• Gilroy Sister Cities

• San Benito (Baler Band) Boosters

• Victory Outreach 

• St. Mary’s Mexico Mission Trip

• Gilroy Historical Society

• Christopher High School Boys Soccer Team

• Alma Bonita Animal Rescue

• South Valley Civic Theatre

• Live Oak Adult Day Services

• GHS Aquatics Water Polo/Swim

• Gilroy JACL

• Charter School of Morgan Hill 

• Gilroy Gators Swim Team 

The grants were awarded through an application process and evaluated by the association’s Board of Directors.

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Erik Chalhoub joined Weeklys as an editor in 2019. Prior to his current position, Chalhoub worked at The Pajaronian in Watsonville for seven years, serving as managing editor from 2014-2019.


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