Folk festival debt mounting

Posted Sept. 22, 2009, at 8:31 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Organizers of the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront presented a sobering picture of the festival’s future on Tuesday, as new figures regarding the financial health of the event were released.

According to executive director Heather McCarthy and Maria Baeza, chairwoman of the festival board of directors, the folk festival has accumulated a total of $130,000 in debt since 2006. That debt was compounded this year by the loss of revenue from the Bucket Brigade, beer tent and souvenir sales on the rained-out Saturday of the festival.

“We are at a sobering crossroads. We have accumulated a substantial debt over the years with a total of $130,000 in outstanding debt in 2009,” said Baeza, speaking at a press conference held Tuesday afternoon on the Bangor Waterfront. “It’s a very scary reality, and it’s one that we take very seriously.”

Debt has been accumulating since 2006, but it was just this year that it became too much for the festival to handle. It is now a burden that must be overcome before plans for the 2010 festival can begin in earnest, the organizers said.

Click to see a spreadsheet of the American Folk Festival’s expenses.

“It’s become more than we can continue to carry,” said McCarthy. “Despite our best efforts, it continues to build up. We aren’t able to fully pay off the costs of the 2009 festival. If it hadn’t rained on Saturday, perhaps that wouldn’t have happened. Nevertheless, that’s the reality.”

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A list of the festival’s creditors was not immediately available.

McCarthy and Baeza issued an appeal to festival stakeholders, both corporate and individual, to consider an additional gift to help overcome the current challenge. They also put out the question to all festival sponsors, volunteers and attendees: Should the American Folk Festival become a paid-admission event?

“It’s more than just a distant possibility this year,” said McCarthy, referring to the 2010 event. “It’s much, much more realistic. A guaranteed revenue stream would certainly help the problem. But will people pay for it? We are looking for feedback from everyone on whether or not they’d mind paying a minimal fee to attend.”

McCarthy said discussions were preliminary, but if an admission fee were to be instituted it would be in the $5-$15 range. Otherwise, there aren’t many more corners that festival organizers can cut.

“We’ve reached a point where there’s nothing we can cut that wouldn’t dramatically change the festival,” said McCarthy. “We’ve gone through a pretty involved process on what would happen if we cut a stage and more performers, and we feel that the impact on the budget isn’t worth what we feel the overall negative impact would be on the festival.”

Though this is the first year the festival has made the continuing debt public, it has been in the red since 2006. Since the end of the National Folk Festival in 2004 and beginning of the American Folk Festival in 2005, the event has steadily lost money over the years. A large donation from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation offset losses in 2005, but in 2006 the festival lost $96,960. In 2007, it lost $28,036, and in 2008 it lost $37,901. Small amounts of each year’s debt were paid off the next year, but more debt continued to pile on with each new festival, resulting in this year’s $130,000 figure.

Ironically, in the year of the economic downturn and the rained-out Saturday, the 2009 festival lost the least amount of money in four years — just $9,373. Bucket Brigade donations also exceeded last year’s numbers with $105,000 donated this year, breaking the 2008 record of $98,400.

“People really understand now just how important the Bucket Brigade is to the continued success of the festival,” said McCarthy. “We also just get better at putting this event on each year. We are more efficient. We’ve gotten it down to a real bare-bones budget.”

Figures released by the festival to the Bangor Daily News show that the 2009 expenses, including actual and in-kind expenses, totaled $1,034,292. The largest percentage of the budget went toward production costs, totaling $269,270 and including expenses such as tents, stages, electricity, sound, lighting, portable toilets, and the shuttle service to and from Bass Park.

Coming in second were programming costs, including fees and travel for staff and artists, at $259,954, and third was administration fees, including salaries and insurance, at $202,050. Those salaries, totaling $145,000 and including benefits, are for the three full-time employees of the American Folk Festival, including McCarthy, development director Mary Brann and assistant director Deb Melnikas. McCarthy declined to give a breakdown of the specific salaries for each employee.

Other components of the budget include the contract the festival has with the National Council for the Traditional Arts, marketing, programming, volunteers, fundraising, sponsorship, hospitality and items for resale.

Money from sponsors constitutes the largest percentage of revenue generated to pay for the festival with vendor fees and T-shirt and other souvenir sales rounding it out. Vendor fees are unlikely to be increased for the 2010 festival, as organizers don’t wish to price them out. At $350 for a 10-by-10-foot booth in the Folk Art Marketplace, many small-scale traditional artists and crafters would be unable to be a part of the festival if the fee were to increase.

While increased donations or a proposed admission fee are the first step, other ideas for generating revenue are still being tossed around. Another fundraising event in the off-season is not out of the question, despite the relatively poor turnout for the Festival Countdown Concert, held last May at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono.

“Nothing is off the table. We want to hear from people on how we can fix this problem and continue to have this incredible event here in Bangor,” said McCarthy, who directed those who wished to make a comment to the festival Web site, www.americanfolkfestival.com. “No one wants to think about Bangor without the American Folk Festival.”

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