The official explanations of why the United States Air Force Academy rejected this year's 18th Annual Highland Games and Celtic Festival are wildly varied.
Organizers for the festival -- a celebration of Scottish and Celtic heritage -- say the Academy was "extremely discourteous" and want to know why they were not told they could not use the taxpayer-funded facility until it was too late to make other arrangements.
Academy officials variously claim that a change in Air Force policy prohibits the games, that a scheduling conflict exists and that the Highland Games trashed the Academy last year.
Richard Wallace, the Vice Chieftain of the Scottish Society of the Pikes Peak region, said most places in the Colorado Springs area are cost-prohibitive for the nonprofit games, which were held at the White House Ranch at the Garden of the Gods until it eventually outgrew the site.
So Wallace and other organizers were pleased to hold last year's games at the Air Force Academy, which only charged a minimal fee for utility and other minor costs. Last August 23, the Scottish Society sent a letter requesting to use the grounds again this year.
In mid-January, Academy officials called them to say they couldn't use the fields. At that time, the "official" reason was a change in policy that allows only events that directly benefit the Air Force Academy cadets, to be held at the facility said Harv Sims, Chieftain of the Scottish Society.
Unofficially, Sims and Wallace say they were told that the Academy's commanding officer Lt. Gen. Tad Oelstrom was angry because he had been the target of public ridicule over his use of wartime readiness funds to remodel his house, including his kitchen. So, he wanted to close the grounds to outside groups that did not directly benefit cadets.
Mostly, Wallace said he is bothered because the Academy didn't let them know until January -- five months after they made their request -- about the scheduling conflict.
"We were never told something was scheduled," he said. "Had they written us back a letter we would have known this."
The academy adopted the policy last fall -- at the same time an Air Force audit found top Academy brass had inappropriately spent $4.1 million on house remodeling projects.
When asked whether the policy change was designed in retaliation, Tech. Sgt. Joe Napikoski of the AFA events management office said, "I couldn't even speculate on that." He referred additional questions to the public relations office. Neil Talbott, director of public affairs, subsequently called the allegation "ridiculous."
"This has nothing to do with the kitchen," Talbott said. "I've been knee deep, heck, neck deep in the kitchen (controversy), and one is not connected to the other."
Talbott rattled off a host of other reasons why the Highland Games would not be welcome back.
First, he said, last year's organizers "made no arrangements for traffic, they left trash behind, there were far too many people -- more than they projected -- and they sold merchandise when we told them not to. They damaged our grass fields, and all of those cost the taxpayers to fix."
Talbott said the Air Force did not keep track of the costs of the damage he claimed were incurred, and said that despite the problems, the academy this year tried to find the Highland Games another place to hold its event.
Asked why the Academy would attempt to refer the games to a new place in light of alleged damage and unrecouped cost to taxpayers, Talbott said, "That's a good question. Maybe because we're nice people?"
However, both Sims and Wallace said that they were told in the debriefing immediately after last year's games that they were "one of the cleanest groups" that had used the Academy's grounds.
"[Then-events director] Col. Schulhaus said we were the least impacting event they'd ever had on the field, we did the least damage to the sprinkler system and the grassy areas," Wallace said.
Notably, in an extensive interview, Napikoski didn't mention damage to fields or other problems during last year's Highland Games. Rather, he said, the group could not be accommodated this year because the cadet field training is scheduled during the same days the Highland Games wanted to use the facility.
"We're not here to be open for outside organizations, that's not the mission of our organization," Napikoski said.
This summer, the Academy will host several other community events, including the annual Chili Cookoff, the Front Range Invitational and Pikes Peak Invitational Soccer tournaments and other athletic events. Those groups donate money to the Academy's athletic department.
Wallace said the Scottish Society needs anywhere from 10 to 12 months lead time to organize the games, which forced them to cancel this year's festival.
While it's difficult to determine the economic boon that the festival brings to the Springs, Wallace said last year's event drew 6,000 people from all over the country and as far away as Australia. Organizers expected 8,000 people this year.
"We don't want to go around picking fights; we would love to work with the Academy," Wallace said. "We were told by our out-of-town guests, especially, that they loved the site, and we did not interfere with any activities going on at the Academy that day.
"But my personal opinion is that there are individuals making policy decisions without awareness that this is an open facility, and they think it's their own private country club."
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