Bangor area businesses, residents and visitors have been very generous to the American Folk Festival. So for festival organizers to threaten to charge for the festival when finances get tight is sure to leave a bitter taste in many mouths. This is especially true since it is not clear to the public that the festival has done all it can to maximize revenue while holding the line on expenditures.
The festival, which marked its eighth year on the Bangor Waterfront last month, is now carrying $130,000 in debt, a result of expenditures, including debt payments, exceeding revenue — much of it donations — for many years.
Although some corporate sponsors didn’t contribute this year due to the economy, a record-setting $105,000 was collected by the Bucket Brigade, a cadre of volunteers who roam the crowd collecting cash from festival-goers. People gave generously, in part because heavy rains Saturday depressed festival attendance.
The rain was also blamed for depressed revenues, especially from beer sales, which the festival took over this year from private vendors. But rain, which can be expected in Maine in August, must be part of the festival’s financial planning.
Festival organizers are to be commended for asking for suggestions to close the budget gap. They are likely to hear many good ideas. But, they should do more to help the public understand the constraints the festival is under. For example, the American Folk Festival already has among the highest rates in the state charged to food vendors for similar events, so it likely can’t raise these rates. The fees it pays artists are in line with other festivals that were under the National Folk Festival umbrella.
One productive avenue that is being pursued is attracting national and corporate sponsors, perhaps in exchange for naming rights. In this light, the board of directors should revisit the list of vendors and sponsors that have been denied in the past because they didn’t fit with the board’s view of the festival’s mission.
One thing the board should stop considering is charging admission. It is impractical, if not impossible, to enforce with a venue spread across the waterfront with unlimited entry points. It would substantially decrease attendance, changing the nature of the festival and end its status as the city’s major summer draw.
Looking beyond seeking additional financial support to close the current gap, festival organizers are smart to consider raising money for an endowment. This would help sustain the event through inevitable downturns while ensuring that it continues to be a highlight of a Bangor summer. It would also negate the need for threats that admission to the festival will no longer be free.