Community Night Out celebrates five years of community support
Aug. 28 marked the fifth annual Community Night Out event. With the exception of the 2016 event being cancelled due to weather, the gathering of community agencies and organizations has enjoyed consistent growth.
Spearheaded by now-retired Merrill Police Chief Ken Neff in 2013, the roots of the first such event in city history stem from a desire to bring the community together in one location, with one goal in mind: building relationships.
As Neff explains, his inspiration for organizing the first event came from the National Night Out event; involving police and fire agencies from across the country visiting local neighborhoods.
“After speaking with (police) department staff, we decided to try and organize a centralized event and have community partners join us. The very first event in August of 2013 was an extension of our Crime Prevention Initiative. Our goal was to bring in various organizations and services from around the community to build relationships between the various services and ultimately share the services we offer with the community,” Neff said. “From a police department perspective, my goal was to encourage officers to attend the event and engage with community members outside of their standard patrol duties.”
The first Merrill Community Night Out was held on Aug. 4, 2013 and drew participation from over a dozen community organizations and public safety agencies, including the Merrill Police Department, Merrill Fire Department, Wisconsin DNR, Merrill Optimists, HAVEN and local Boy Scouts.
“That first event was a pleasant surprise,” Neff adds. “From the very start, we had a very positive response from every organization we contacted. We worked with the Merrill Fire Department to spread the word and brought Merrill Fire Department staff and officers of the Merrill Police Department together to cook hot dogs which were offered free to anyone who attended. Merrill Transit offered free rides to those who wished to attend which was great!”
Neff estimates nearly 300 community members attended the 2013 event, and community involvement has steadily grown since.
“I think the biggest event to date was last year,” comments Neff’s successor, current Police Chief Corey Bennett.
“For the first couple of years, Community Night Out was held at Normal Park. It was a great, centralized location! But over time, the event just continued to grow and we got to a point where the event outgrew the park. Last year (2017) was the first year we hosted the event at the Merrill Festival Grounds, and that was the biggest event we have had so far.”
The 2017 event not only enjoyed a record attendance of over 400, but also featured over 40 community organizations and exhibitors; ranging from medical transport helicopter displays, to Merrill Fire Department ladder truck rides and Merrill Police Department K9 demonstrations.
“Over time we have seen the event grow not only in terms of attendance from the community, but also other community organizations getting involved,” Bennett adds.
Despite inclement weather forcing the event to move indoors to the Merrill Expo Center this year, attendance remained strong as an estimated 360 community members stopped in.
“I’m glad to see the Community Night Out event continued and to see it become even more popular as the years go by,” Neff adds with a grin. “I look forward to it every year. Officer participation has been strong from the start. Several officers have volunteered over the years and Corey tells me the entire detective bureau attended this year. That is just great and what I have always hoped for. I hope the community continues to be involved and contribute to this event. There is no such thing as too much support.”