May 25, 2018
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Folk festival making final preparations, still fixing past financial troubles

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Joe Grzybowski of Bangor walks through the crowd collecting donations for the American Folk Festival in 2010.
By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — With less than two weeks before tens of thousands of revelers descend on Bangor’s Waterfront, organizers are ironing out the final details of the American Folk Festival and keeping fingers crossed for sunshine during what has been a wet summer.

This year’s f estival runs Aug. 23-25.

The festival, which has struggled with fiscal problems at times in its past, is “on track” with its fundraising this year, gathered largely through sponsorships and contributions from area businesses, according to Director Heather McCarthy. The festival has raised about $631,000 so far. Organizers hope to raise at least $860,000, and McCarthy said she believes that gap could be closed through donations collected by “bucket brigade” volunteers and vendor sales.

Dan Tremble, the festival’s vice chairman, said Sunday that the group’s budget anticipates a $130,000 collection by the bucket brigade over the course of the festival, which is in the neighborhood of last year’s take.

Organizers recommend a donation of $10 per day per attendee, or a $20 donation for a family.

The American Folk Festival was formed to keep alive the success seen at the National Folk Festival from 2002 to 2005. However, the event ran on deficits in its early years and began accumulating debt.

In 2009, fiscal 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 effectively severed financial ties between the longtime partners. The city no longer would provide cash contributions to help the festival, but would provide in-kind services, such as police, fire and engineering work.

The next year, the festival began paying back a $300,000 debt to the city that had accumulated over the event’s early years. The relationship with the city improved the next year, as councilors were pleased with the effort festival organizers made to shore up their finances and pay back its debt to the city.

Debbie Cyr, Bangor’s finance director, said Friday that the festival paid its installments on time or in advance. American Folk Festival has paid a total of about $90,000 on the debt so far, with the next payment due Nov. 1.

“We really have come a long way,” Tremble said, adding that organizers “recognized the fact that we can’t run a successful festival if we’re running a deficit every year. The American Folk Festival finished in the black in 2012, according to organizers.

Festival organizers also tried to rein in costs, reducing the number of stages, cutting staff positions and slashing other expenses.

“Every year, our board of directors goes through that budget with a fine-tooth comb,” McCarthy said.

But the board and careful planning can’t control everything. Wet weather hurt the festival’s bottom line in the past.

In 2011, severe weather forced the cancellation of the festival’s third day, causing the loss of an estimated $75,000 and prompting staff to reduce a position from full time to part time. Last year, the event went off without major weather disturbances.

The second day of the 2009 festival also was rained out, and organizers revealed information about their growing debt soon after.

Tremble said organizers have a few more days to decide whether to buy weather insurance for this year’s festival. They had that insurance in 2011, but the gamble didn’t pay off because the storm didn’t dump enough rain in a specific timespan, Tremble said.

Organizers are still seeking volunteers for the three-day event.

“We are recruiting right to the bitter end,” McCarthy said Friday. “We have a huge number of volunteer needs and we look for help throughout the year.”

McCarthy said she’d like to see 800 volunteers for this year’s festival, but just more than 500 have signed up to this point.

Among changes for this year’s event are a children’s area located closer to the middle of the festival, shifting the orientation of the dance tent to allow for easier flow, and a new Railroad Stage in its old location, adjacent to the relocated Waterfront Concerts stage.

McCarthy said the festival isn’t using the Waterfront Concerts stage this year because it would have spread the festival ground out too far. Tremble said that large stage also was much larger than what most of the festival acts needed and that it might “dwarf” them.

For information about performers and a schedule of events, visit

Correction: An earlier version of this story requires correction. The American Folk Festival begins August 23, not 24.

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