When Andy Bernal rides in the Gilbert Days Parade on Saturday, he will probably take a moment to remember when the event was a modest procession through a small farming town.
“Those were times when you’d see everyone in the town at the parade,” said Bernal, a former Maricopa Community Colleges administrator who was born in Gilbert in 1943. “Now, you’re lucky if you see anyone at all. Times are a lot different now.”
Bernal, whose grandparents moved to Gilbert in 1915, is among the “founding families” serving as grand marshals in Saturday’s parade, the signature event in the two-week celebration of Gilbert Days.
The event carries special significance this year, as Gilbert — which has
exploded in size over the last 25 years to a current population of 223,000 — celebrates its 90th birthday.
Like the town it celebrates, Gilbert Days has encountered big-city budget realities.
In 2009, the parade was nearly canceled before private donations saved it, and this year, organizers are staging a 104-entry parade on a budget of about $20,000. In previous years, as much as $70,000 was spent.
“The money that we have to work with has decreased substantially, so we have had to look at
raising money and make cuts where we need to,” said Chelle Bullard, president of the non-profit Gilbert Promotional Corporation.
Support from the Gilbert Town Council — which must grapple with a projected annual deficit of $10 million to $16 million for at least the next four years — has dwindled.
In its Oct. 26 meeting, the Council approved a $14,058.91 contract for such services as police and street-cleaning but balked against additional parade funding.
Bullard said such cost-cutting measures include volunteers picking up trash (a $3,000 savings), GPC using its own audio equipment from the Gilbert Rodeo Park instead of renting a sound system, and negotiating to lower costs with service providers.
However, she said that organizers will strive to provide the same show that longtime attendees are accustomed to seeing.
“We’ll be creative and have a great show, just with a smaller expense,” Bullard said. “I don’t think that people are going to miss anything. Last year, we made the parade route a little shorter, so that was a big change. We’ve condensed all of the fun into one mile, and it will be a great show.”
Gilbert’s high school bands will not participate in the parade because the State Marching
Band Championship is on Saturday at Phoenix College.
Elaine Lamb, 73, is another founding-family grand marshal. Her grandfather, James Pine, is one of Gilbert’s first settlers, having moved to the town in 1896.
She recalls when the parade attracted such dignitaries as former Senator and conservative icon Barry Goldwater and sitting Arizona governors.
The last time the Gilbert Days parade was cancelled was in 1963, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The parade was replaced by a remembrance ceremony in which then-governor Paul Fannin spoke.
“It’s always been a huge celebration for us,” Lamb said. “It’s something that has made Gilbert well-known. When my husband and I were young, we were the kids from the other side of the tracks, the hicks from Gilbert. Now, it’s a town where everybody is moving to, it seems.
“So, (an event) like this shows how far the town has come.”