BANGOR, Maine — The American Folk Festival has trimmed $140,000 from its annual operating budget, but organizers have made efforts to maintain the event’s quality, to keep it free to patrons and to begin addressing significant debt that has accrued in its five-year history.
Board of directors Chairwoman Maria Baeza, Executive Director Heather McCarthy and other board members presented the 2010 folk festival budget at a press conference on Tuesday. It was the first time they ever have unveiled their budget publicly.
“There have been so many questions recently, we felt we owed it to our stakeholders and festival-goers to allay some of those concerns and questions,” Baeza said.
The biggest change will be reducing the number of stages from six to four. Baeza stressed that there will still be activities where those eliminated stages used to be, but a reduced number of stages lowers production and logistical costs substantially. There may be fewer performers, McCarthy said, but the acts also are expected to play longer sets than in years past.
Other changes for the 2010 festival, which is scheduled for Aug. 27-29, include:
— Contracting directly for technical services rather than relying on an outside service.
— Purchasing bad-weather insurance, something the festival has never done in the past.
— Expanding the selection of crafters and vendors to increase revenue.
— Creating a “sustaining member program” to encourage more individual financial support.
Perhaps biggest of all, though, the 2010 budget includes funds that will begin to repay the festival’s debt to the city of Bangor, which stands at approximately $280,000, accrued over a five-year period.
One thing that will not change, Baeza said, is the quality that festival-goers have come to expect.
Festival representatives are scheduled to bring the budget to the City Council on Feb. 1, but some councilors are upset that the council was not involved sooner.
“I think it’s unfortunate that they had a press conference before they presented [the budget] to us,” Council Chairman Richard Stone said. “I realize that they don’t work for us, but as their largest creditor, it might have been a courtesy.”
Councilor Rick Bronson, one of two councilors who serves on the festival’s 20-member board of directors, also was disappointed and he called the process “deeply dysfunctional.”
Councilor Cary Weston, the other council representative, was less critical.
“In the last five or six months, the board has engaged in some deep analysis work and looking at its budget like never before,” he said. “It’s a shame it hasn’t happened before, but it’s happening now, and that’s a start.”
Since the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront branched off from the National Folk Festival in 2005, it has been a popular event. A recent study by the Center for Tourism Research and Outreach at the University of Maine estimated that the festival brings in $10 million annually for the local economy.
However, the festival has accumulated substantial debt over the course of five years, most of which has been paid by the city of Bangor through surplus funds. The city cut off its funding last year, prompting festival organizers to take a harder look at the budget.
During Tuesday’s press conference, Baeza said the 2010 budget reflects a number of operational changes, as well as some creative ideas to increase revenue.
Addressing the city’s concerns, she said there are two separate conversations to be had — one related to the 2010 budget, the other related to establishing a more clearly defined relationship between the festival and the city going forward.
Stone agreed and said he hopes both discussions happen at the Feb. 1 meeting.
One thing the budget does not include is any changes or reductions in expenses related to staff salaries and administrative costs, something city councilors have questioned.
Rick Fournier, treasurer of the festival’s board of directors, defended the decision to keep the staff the way it is, mainly because its three members will be asked to shoulder more responsibilities in the coming year.
Another budget item councilors have brought up is the level of in-kind services provided by the city. Every year, the city provides tens of thousands of dollars to the festival for services such as engineering, public works and police and fire. No other festival receives that level of in-kind service.
“It would cost them big money to have private contractors come in and do that work,” Bronson said.
The city also still has to decide whether to approve a $45,000 grant to the festival, which was recommended by the Commission on Cultural Development earlier this month.
Fournier, a local banker, said Tuesday that any contributions from the cultural commission to the festival would be used to pay down debt to the city.
Stone questioned the validity of taking money from the city to repay the city.
“That’s pretty creative financing,” he said.
Fournier also stressed that all revenue projections related to the 2010 budget were conservative and that any surplus would go toward paying down the debt.