BANGOR, Maine — Councilor Cary Weston said it best: “What a difference a year makes.”
American Folk Festival organizers briefed city councilors Wednesday on the success of the 2010 event and announced that they had made their first repayment to address $300,000 in debt owed to the city.
The first installment of $30,000 came the city’s way in mid-October. The festival has paid all debts associated with the 2010 event and already has begun planning for 2011.
More than anything, the financial success of this ninth annual event on the Bangor Waterfront was a validation for the many volunteers that made it happen and the many visitors that keep it going year after year, said Maria Baeza, chairwoman of the folk festival board of directors.
“The community support is immensely gratifying, especially considering the ongoing economic pressure that Maine is facing,” she said. “We have received a strong message from festival stakeholders: The American Folk Festival is a unique event worth supporting and worth keeping admission-free.”
Councilors were effusive in their praise of the festival’s staff and board of directors for turning around the financial picture in such a short time.
“I am delighted in the change of tone from last year,” Geoff Gratwick said. “It’s remarkable what you’ve done.”
The folk festival has been in Bangor since 2002 when the National Folk Festival began a three-year run in the Queen City. In 2005, a group of local community members launched the American Folk Festival in hopes of continuing the success of the music and culture showcase.
While popular, the locally run festival built significant debt. Last year, the problems came to a head when the city cut off its funding to the festival after a previously undisclosed financial relationship between the city and the festival became public. After much debate, councilors and festival organizers reached an agreement that effectively severed ties between the longtime partners.
The city no longer would provide any cash contributions to the folk festival and would reduce the level of in-kind services — including but not limited to police, fire, public works and engineering duties.
Festival organizers responded by cutting expenses more than $140,000. The result was a slightly scaled-down festival but one that still featured 66 individual performances on four stages over three days, Baeza said.
The 2010 season also featured more aggressive fundraising efforts. Shortly after the late-August festival ended, organizers announced they had raised more than $170,000 through the annual bucket brigade, the highest total in nine years. The previous bucket brigade high was in 2009 when $107,000 was raised.
Baeza said board members were ecstatic to make good on their promise to repay the city.
“We took that agreement very seriously,” she said.
Weston pointed out that the festival representatives had no obligation to meet with councilors and that their appearance Wednesday was a show of cooperation and respect.
The success of the American Folk Festival may have helped pave the way for the Hollywood Slots Waterfront Concert Series, which completed a successful run this year and already has begun planning a 2011 series.
The festival even got a boost from the concert series, when local promoter Alex Gray agreed to let the American Folk Festival use the giant stage that will be set up on the waterfront.