WATERLOO — The Trail of Tears annual commemorative motorcycle ride and its related festivities are less than three weeks away, but a good portion of the event's funding is still in question.

The 26th annual ride and festival is scheduled for Sept. 21.

For more than a decade, partial funding for the event has come through the Florence/Lauderdale Tourism office. For each of the past three years, that office provided $5,000 in aid.

This year, however, the Trail of Tears event was not included in the tourism group's budget, according to Florence/Lauderdale Tourism President and CEO Rob Carnegie.

He said the board identified several areas for cuts.

"The board approved specific events (for funding) around the beginning of the year," Carnegie said. "We try to look at the return on the dollars invested and there just isn't a great return on this event."

Carnegie said that although thousands of people journey to Waterloo, it seems they aren't staying in local hotels.

Tourism officials track lodging numbers after each event, and Carnegie said the Trail of Tears does not draw a significant number of overnight visitors to hotels.

Carnegie said he is unaware of any financial requests from Waterloo for this year's event, but he expects the board to discuss the matter.

Chairman Larry McCoy said the budgeting process was handled differently this year – no funding was earmarked for any activities, thus allowing individuals to apply on an as-needed basis. 

"The events budget this year was put in one pot, and we haven't had a request from Waterloo (Trail of Tears) officials," McCoy said.

He said requests for funding are given to the Events Committee, and its members look at and determine what appropriations, if any, are given to events."

"We will likely address this in our Thursday (8:30 a.m.) board meeting," McCoy said.

McCoy said the change in budgeting came out of necessity this year, as tourism officials knew they would have some larger, new events to fund, including tournaments and Shoals Fest in October.

Waterloo Mayor Joan Farneman said she has made two requests, by letter, asking for funding for the Trail of Tears, but hasn't gotten a response.

"I don't know where the breakdown occurred, but we've had appropriations from the tourism board in recent years and it has enabled us to hold the event," Farneman said. "They've been really good to help us, and with several thousand people attending, I thought they were also filling hotels in Florence."

All together, the three-day event costs the town of Waterloo about $20,000.

Farneman said it can cost more, depending on entertainment costs, fees from Native American dancers, portable toilet rentals and clean-up costs.

Other funding typically comes from the state, the Lauderdale County Commission and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Tribal Council, Farneman said.

Each of those entities in recent years have provided about $5,000 in funding.

"So far, we haven't heard from anyone on the funding," she said.

This year's event will happen even if the town doesn't receive any funding assistance. Vendors and entertainers are already lined up, Farneman said.

"People think our vendor fees sustain the event, but it doesn't even come close," she said. "We barely broke even last year. We can't go in the hole for this event. The town's general budget can't pay for this."

Longtime Waterloo resident Hank Thomas said he's hoping the issue is resolved soon because the Trail of Tears brings in some revenue for the small town.

"It's the one thing we look forward to all year long," he said.

"This is the very history of our town, and it's a very important history that should be commemorated," Thomas said. "This event is what's keeping the town alive."

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