Folk Festival’s Future

Posted Jan. 27, 2010, at 5:25 p.m.

Organizers of the American Folk Festival have come a long way since the fall, when they threatened to charge a fee to attend the three-day event and tried to shake down donors to pay the festival’s bills. Since then, festival board members have reviewed the budget and decided to downsize the festival and reduce expenditures to get it back in the black — and to keep it going. This is a prudent, if overdue, move.

On Tuesday, festival organizers announced that they had cut $140,000 from the 2010 event’s nearly $900,000 budget. The biggest reductions came in programming and production for the late August event on the Bangor Waterfront. The festival will pay nearly $49,000 less to the National Council for the Traditional Arts for its assistance. The council runs the National Folk Festival, which was in Bangor from 2002 to 2005 and was the precursor to the American Folk Festival.

The festival also built a budget that assumed a reduction in donations and government support, a prudent move given the state of the economy. If donors are unexpectedly generous, the additional revenue can go, first, to paying off the festival’s debt and, second, to building an endowment to sustain the event in future years.

Shortly after last year’s festival, organizers held a news conference to announce that they needed another $130,000 to cover the 2009 fees. Heavy rain on Saturday was blamed for the shortfall. At that time, organizers said they might have to charge admission in the future to cover the debt.

In December, the BDN reported that the folk festival has operated at a loss in all but one of the eight years that the event has been held. After this summer’s American Folk Festival, the event had accumulated debt of nearly $280,000.

The debt piled up in increments of between $11,000 and $161,000 a year beginning in 2002, when Bangor began a three-year run of hosting the National Folk Festival. The only year that the event was not in the red was 2005, the first year of the American Folk Festival.

Essentially, the city of Bangor paid the festival’s bill and was reimbursed with revenue from the three-day event. Even when expenses consistently exceeded revenue, the city kept extending its line of credit.

An anonymous donor recently gave $100,000, which was used to help pay the 2009 debt. Included in the festival’s 2010 budget is a plan to begin repaying the rest of the debt. It includes a convoluted plan to get money from the city and using it to pay part of the debt to the city.

To reduce costs, the festival, which is scheduled for Aug. 27-29, will have four stages instead of six and there will be fewer performers, although some are expected to play longer sets than in past years. Efforts will be made to hire technical support personnel from Maine or who live on a direct route to Bangor.

Board members also say they will continue to look for ways to build financial support for the festival.

These steps don’t solve all the festival’s problems, but they are needed moves to put it on sustainable financial footing.

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