Festival Finger-Pointing

Posted Feb. 04, 2010, at 7:27 p.m.

Bangor city councilors have made it clear they are frustrated with the management of the American Folk Festival. One of their major complaints is that the festival board has not been forthcoming and that the city doesn’t have enough say in the three-day festival. Before blaming festival officials for this — or worse, reducing the city’s financial support out of spite — they should take a closer look at the city councilors who serve on the festival board.

The City Council has long had two representatives on the folk festival board, more than any other single entity. If they didn’t know where the event’s money came from — specifically how much of it came from the city — they should have asked. If they didn’t like the terms of a line of credit the city extended to the festival, they should have said so and, better yet, worked to change it.

If they didn’t like how the festival was operated, they should have spoken up. If they didn’t, this isn’t the festival’s fault. If the City Council was dissatisfied with its representation on the board, it should have chosen different people. If it wanted more representation, it should have asked.

Instead, now that the festival’s financial problems have come to light, the council has used this as an opportunity to attack it. This is shortsighted.

The city can back away from the festival and watch it slowly wither. Whom would this serve?

According to an analysis by the University of Maine System Center for Tourism Research and Outreach, the festival, held annually on the Bangor Waterfront in late August, pumped $10 million into the local economy in 2008. Even if this figure is inflated, this is a huge payback for the roughly $235,000 the city has invested in past years in cash and services. Beyond the financial payback, the positive vibe Bangor gets from the festival is hard to quantify but would be tragic to lose.

The festival does have financial difficulties. Shortly after the 2009 event ended, organizers announced a $130,000 shortfall, which they blamed largely on rainy weather on the Saturday of the festival. It was later revealed that the deficit was really about $400,000. After seeking additional donations — $100,000 from an anonymous donor helped pay down the debt — and threatening to charge admission, the festival’s board reconsidered the event’s budget. Late last month, they presented a plan that cut spending by $140,000.

The board also built a budget that assumed a reduction in donations and government support, a prudent move given the state of the economy.

Earlier this week, City Council members suggested this wasn’t enough. They also suggested that the city should have more input in festival spending. Although it is an important player, the city is not the only entity that has helped make the festival a success. Should corporate sponsors be able to dictate what the budget looks like? How about the hundreds of volunteers?

The festival’s board of directors is the place to air these concerns and to ask questions. If the city’s representatives to the board didn’t do this, fault them, not the festival.

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