June 18, 2018
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Organizers say American Folk Festival finances on firmer footing

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Joe Grzybowski of Bangor walks through the crowd collecting donations for the American Folk Festival in August 2010. He started volunteering three years ago when he moved from New Jersey to Maine. Grzybowski is one of about 800 people who helped out at the festival in 2010. For the second straight year, festival officials say they are on track to reach their fundraising goal.
By Andrew Neff, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — After operating for years in the red, American Folk Festival organizers say they’re seeing more green and their financial outlook is greatly improved.

For the second straight year, festival officials say they are on track to reach their fundraising goal.

“Our fundraising goal this year is $934,000, and we’re about two-thirds of the way there right now,” Heather McCarthy, executive director of the American Folk Festival, said Monday. “The goal last year was $973,800, and we surpassed that by a little bit. That was phenomenal, and an important year for us to be able to do that.”

McCarthy was referring to a badly needed financial boost after the festival had run for several years in the red. Much of that help came from a 63 percent jump in donations collected from attendees last year.

This year’s festival — the 10th — runs Aug. 26-28.

“Not as many years made money as we hoped and we really needed to change things around,” McCarthy said of the festival’s earlier financial difficulties. “In 2009 we raised $107,000 through our Bucket Brigade and festival-goers’ donations. Last year, it was $170,500.”

According to festival board chairman John Rohman, that was the largest-ever donation amount for the decade-old event, which attracts about 140,000-150,000 people to the Bangor Waterfront each year.

He said he’s happy with the level of festival fundraising so far.

“We’re looking at where we were last year, which was an extremely good one for us, and we’re extremely comfortable with our pace this year, but we’re not taking our foot off the accelerator,” said Rohman, former CEO of Bangor architectural and engineering firm WBRC and festival board chairman for the first two years it was in Bangor.

Signage placed all over festival grounds last year and admission gates and attractions noted a suggested donation for attendees of $10 per day per individual and $20 per day for families.

“I’ll admit I was skeptical about it when it was proposed, but having that suggested donation was very effective,” he said.

Last year, the festival was well short of its goal three days before it started, even after $50,000 in cash was given by two anonymous donors. This year, McCarthy said organizers have raised about $660,000 so far with just over six weeks remaining before events begin Aug. 26.

“We’ve made some progress in fundraising as some major sponsors have stepped up, but we still have a ways to go,” McCarthy said. “That goes about the same for volunteers, as we have about half as many as what we’ll need so far.”

One new major sponsor to join up this year is Tim Hortons.

Another thing the festival is keeping pace with is its payment schedule to the city of Bangor for the $299,000 owed the city for start-up and other costs paid for on behalf of the festival in the early years.

“The city acted as a fiscal agent and advanced them money to use the first few years,” said Debbie Cyr, Bangor’s finance director. “We worked out a 10-year payment schedule and they gave us a check for $29,999.31 last year.”

The arrangement also calls for Bangor to provide $50,000 worth of “in-kind services” this year from police, firefighters and public works employees.

“Last year that amount of services was $65,000, so it’s a gradually declining amount and anything over that amount will be paid for by them,” Cyr said.

Another challenge for festival organizers this year is a decline in infrastructure and equipment help from the National Folk Festival, which still aids the Bangor event even after it went from the National to American designation in 2005.

“They’ve come up from Washington each year, but this year the National Folk Festival is in Tennessee the week after us and there’s a giant tractor-trailer truck that will be headed there instead of being available to us,” McCarthy said. “We’ll still have a few folks from that national crew coming up to help with planning and organizing, but no equipment, so we’re working with a big inventory list of everything we’ll need.”

McCarthy said the effort is about halfway there.

“We’re fortunate to have a lot of local folks who have helped that [National Folk Festival] crew out the last few years and many are stepping up to take charge with the setup, water and electrical infrastructure, lighting, security, transportation” and more, she said.

McCarthy pointed out another change to this year’s festival.

“I’d like to invite previous festival goers to recognize we have all new performers this year and [that] they notice the diversity,” she said. “There are no performances or artists in this year’s festival lineup who have performed here before.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the approach festival officials and organizers use to encourage sponsorships, donations and volunteers.

“We do use [text messaging] and social networking sites now, which we didn’t before, but our approach has always been much more personal,” said festival board member and former chairwoman Maria Baeza. “Rather than something that’s a mass-marketing kind of approach, we prefer a letter, a call, a private party or public function like a Rotary Club meeting.”

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