After a social media firestorm, EW Bitter, organizer and founder of the Stowe Lacrosse Classic tournament, has canceled the event and said he’s looking for a new town to host it in future years.
The tournament attracted 5,000 visitors some years, a boon for local restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
Last week, Bitter said he was still planning to hold the tournament, with new rules and restrictions well within state guidelines to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
But on Tuesday, he called it off. When Charles Safford, town manager, asked Bitter to join an upcoming select board meeting to outline how he was restructuring the event, he explained his decision.
“Due to the vitriol, hate and threats of violence from members of the community, we do not feel the Stowe area would be a safe place for visiting families,” he said. “We will not be running the event this year.
“Furthermore, we do not feel it would be a good fit in future years and will look at other options for host venues.”
The two-weekend youth lacrosse tournament festival debuted in July 2011 and drew promising young lacrosse players from across the nation, along with their parents.
When the pandemic hit and the town government revoked all permits to hold an event larger than 2,000 people, Bitter changed his plans and scaled down the tournament.
Only 30 teams could register this year, mostly from Vermont, Bitter said, and the event was moved to private fields from the town-owned Mayo Farm fields. Games would be held one at a time with fewer than 100 people gathering, two-thirds of the 150 cap that the state has in place. There would be no vendors or other fanfare, just games with the players, coaches, one parent per athlete and officials attending.
“That event as it is historically known is not happening,” Bitter said last week. “You end up with a fraction of what you would normally have for this event.”
But that information wasn’t available on the tournament’s web page — which said only that attendance would be reduced by 70 percent — and, after word the lacrosse tournament was still a go, Stowe residents objected.
Some said it was dangerous and irresponsible to hold the event at full scale, noting the tournament has attracted 3,000 to 5,000 visitors in the past, and could be coming from places with high infection rates.
Others knew the tournament had been scaled down, but still said it was a bad idea.
On Monday, an online petition was launched to postpone the event and, at press time, it had nearly 700 signatures.
“The town is just not ready for this influx in people,” said Stephen Burnett, one signer of the petition. “I support the business that LAX brings to town, albeit sometimes pretentious, but this year is just not the year for it.”
“If this was an in-state tournament, I would be more open to it,” Christopher Bentley said, “but being a hub for cross-state travel while we are all trying to manage COVID seems irresponsible.”
Most of the signers who commented cited health risks. A few pointed to a double standard, with almost all other events canceled. Some said they didn’t want people from out of state in Stowe without quarantining.
Across the internet, hundreds and possibly thousands of comments criticized plans to hold the lacrosse tournament during the pandemic.
Bitter feeling bitter
On Thursday, July 2, Bitter was confident the restructuring of the event would sufficiently protect Stowe guests and residents. He said the safety steps would cost him money, but “it’s purely for the economic externalities around (the event) and people spending money in and around town.”
He also said it was for the kids, and there was a psychological need for stability in sports.
“All you have to do is talk to the families of kids that play sports,” he said. “I’ve found a kind of desperation in their voice.”
He said the virus was no threat to the children.
“There’s virtually no evidence of kids transmitting to adults or kids transmitting to other kids,” he said, adding that the flu is more dangerous to children.
But that was a week ago. Since then, many residents made it clear they didn’t want the tournament in town.
“It’s the Stowe community becoming quite hostile and not a safe place for families to visit, despite what occurred over the last weekend and all the visitors that came to town,” Bitter said Tuesday, referring to Independence Day tourism.
“We’ve always faced opposition in town for an event that brings in $4 million over four days,” Bitter said. “Frankly, there are other places that can do it that make more sense.”
Bitter lives in Stowe and owns businesses in town, but said moving the tournament somewhere else wasn’t a hard decision.
“No, the town made that decision, and that starts with the leadership in town, in the way that they so wdistrust and fear,” Bitter said. “The us-versus-them mentality has become the mantra.” Bitter would not comment on who he meant by leadership.
“A lot of the information is also misguided, misrepresented, distorting the facts. That’s fine, people can choose to react and say what they will and how they feel,” he said.
Bitter said he feared for the safety of his guests, as well.
“There’s various threats of violence that we had to report and that we take seriously,” he said. Bitter would not say how these threats were made or who made them.
Don Hull, Stowe’s police chief, said Bitter reported some comments on social media but provided no other details.
“I just don’t know a lot about it. I’m just hearing rumors,” he said.
COVID and xenophobia
When Safford received the email announcing the tournament cancellation, he told Bitter to report the threats to the police and said the town government condemned negative attitudes toward visitors.
Safford, select board chair Lisa Hagerty and emergency management director Kyle Walker all spoke out against a rising tide of disdain for out-of-state visitors and second-home owners when the pandemic began.
“From the beginning, Kyle was very clear saying we really shouldn’t do an us-versus-them or focus on the color of license plates. We should act responsibly,” Safford said.
He received at least 10 calls or emails from residents concerned about the tournament, asking the town to do something about the potential influx of visitors.
“There’s a reality to the scope of our municipal authority,” he said. “We cannot control who flows through this community. It’s just not practical.”
Walker and Safford said the town would have approved the tournament as long as it followed state guidelines.
Will the move hurt Stowe?
Bitter said this year’s event was canceled, and it won’t be coming back to Stowe. He claimed the lacrosse tournament had a $4 million annual impact on the local economy, but Stowe’s town manager said the move wouldn’t be catastrophic to the local economy.
“It certainly would be an economic loss,” Safford said, but cited the Vermont Auto Enthusiasts’ Antique and Classic Car Show that moved from Stowe to Waterbury in 2018.
“I understand hotel occupancies were similar to what they were prior to the departure that weekend,” he said. “Maybe people were still staying in town.”
He said that, if the tournament does leave the town, he hopes something will take its place, and Stowe is set up to handle big events.
“The town has the infrastructure of a small city, and that’s not to support its year-round population,” he said.
Caleb Magoon, owner of Waterbury Sports and of Power Play Sports in Morrisville, said his business will feel the effects of the tournament cancellation.
“It’s a substantial chunk of our July sales. That’s a community that shows up with dollars,” Magoon said. When the tournament debuted in 2011, Magoon was one of the first vendors to get involved, and helped Bitter coordinate with other businesses that became part of the tournament every year.
“It’s really one of those things that everyone can bank on,” he said.
This year, things were less reliable. He didn’t find out the tournament wouldn’t have vendors until last week, and he heard that information secondhand. And then the whole thing was called off.
Magoon said he would have worked the event himself if he had to, keeping his employees safe from the virus.
“I thought it was possible; spreading fields and whatnot would have been enough,” he said.
“We expected this might happen, so it’s not earth-shattering,” he said. “What’s really disappointing is the community’s reaction.”
Magoon said lacrosse players and their families love the event. “We hear, time and again, that it’s their favorite tournament of the year.”
He said Bitter might feel personally attacked by the community’s pushback. Magoon wants Bitter to know people appreciate the work he’s done.
“Hopefully a bunch of business people are reaching out to EW and the family and saying, ‘Hey, we want you here. Don’t let a few bad apples spoil the bunch.’”
Here’s a sampling of comments made on Facebook in response to a post from state Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe:
• “We have no issue welcoming people here for the low risk activities that people have been enjoying since the spring. But to have a high risk and contact sport is the distinction here. Do not admonish the people of Stowe for trying to defend themselves from threats that will bring more cases and inevitably deaths.”
• “The Bitters threatening to pull the tournament from our community because of our clear health concerns during this deadly pandemic is nothing short of extortion.”
• “A lot of people in town don’t feel safe with even 70 percent fewer teams, and there were a lot of reasonable questions about where staff and coaches were coming from. … Maybe all the coaches and staff are local or from ‘green counties’ but how are we to know that? In future, explain upfront, on your website, what you plan to do to keep the community safe, and nobody will have to guess, and the organizers won’t feel the need to flounce off with threats of not holding it here in the future. This all could have been so easily avoided.”
• “States that have allowed big events like this, indoor dining, opening events, bars, beaches, etc. because it was ‘allowed’ are exploding the spread to a level where it may now be impossible to rein in. As a result, we’re seeing unprecedented illness, death, and permanent economic crises.”
• “Like most people posting here, I was a tourist before I became a resident and people have never been unwelcoming. It has nothing to do with not wanting a large number of visitors and everything to do with safety.”
• “Right now canceling is the right approach. Keep Stowe and Vermont as safe as we can to prevent the spread of virus. The balloon festival was canceled by Stoweflake; why should this event be any different?”
• “As a business owner, it’s not that I don’t want the LAX families here, I just don’t want a large group of people from all over the Northeast here at the same time during a global pandemic. Especially when the U.S. is one of the countries with the highest caseload.”
• “It’s unfortunate that Bitter Lacrosse didn't communicate that better to the community.”
• “Instead of scolding the residents of Stowe and surrounding communities, I’d have suggested eating a little humble pie as follows: ‘We clearly underestimated and/or disregarded the level of public concern over this event. Moving forward, we’ll make a point of communicating in a transparent fashion in an effort to allay community fears, because we care about the safety and well-being of Stowe and surrounding communities.’”
• “It’s sad that this escalated to threats or violence. However, let’s remember, there is still an active global pandemic happening and literally, sporting events, summer camps, weddings, festivals, concerts, theater and other community events have all been postponed to next year — for the safety of our families, for the safety of those of us who live and work in this community. I and most people that I had discussed this with thought it was incredibly irresponsible to hold this event in the midst of our ongoing battle to keep COVID away from our small and beloved community.”