The proposed plan to restructure the relationship between the American Folk Festival and the city of Bangor, which the city council is expected to take up tonight, seems to be a fair, frank and realistic framework for the parties to go forward. As outlined, it protects the city’s interests, and yet does not hamstring the festival in its aim to continue to flourish as a major regional attraction, an outcome for which the City Council is most certainly rooting.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the recent adversarial relationship between the city and the festival. The festival board failed to take steps to protect and secure the event’s long-term viability. And the board took for granted the generous support the city provided, year in and year out. For its part, the city had been an “enabler” of sorts, allowing a loosey-goosey partnership to develop where a carefully constructed contract was needed.
The key principles in the agreement succeed in achieving “clarity” in the relationship, as board Chairwoman Maria Baeza put it.
They include putting in writing the $300,000 debt the festival owes the city, and structuring a three-year repayment plan. That plan includes some flexibility, which gives the festival some breathing room as it seeks to ride out the effects of the national recession.
It also includes a more carefully quantified accounting of the in-kind services the city provides for the festival, and possibly a capping of those services. City Finance Director Debbie Cyr estimates the cost of those services topped $150,000 for the 2009 event.
The agreement also removes the city as fiscal agent for the nonprofit event, and removes the two city councilors from the makeup of the festival board. These two provisions are especially prudent, since they protect the city from what could be serious financial liability, and they put elected city officials in the role of objective observers, where they should be.
Certainly, city councilors or perhaps the new city manager should closely monitor the board’s efforts as it plans what we all hope are many festivals to come. And the festival board should not be reticent in seeking city assistance, just as other nonprofit institutions are not, but still being mindful that the answer to a request for help may sometimes be no.
The bumps and bruises endured by the festival in the last year can be attributed to growing pains as much as to the recession. Just as other successful Maine festivals that have passed the 10- and 20-year marks have learned from their struggles, the American Folk Festival will learn from this difficult year. There is every reason to believe it will look back on 2009 and 2010 as a time of building a foundation for a long run.