The fact that the city’s annual folk festival is much deeper in debt than previously acknowledged is both a warning and an opportunity. It is warning that festival organizers need to think differently about the three-day affair on the Bangor Waterfront. It is also an opportunity to do things better.
According to Saturday’s Bangor Daily News story, the folk festival has operated at a loss in all but one of the eight years that the event has been held. After this summer’s American Folk Festival, the event had accumulated debt of nearly $280,000.
The debt piled up in increments of between $11,000 and $161,000 a year beginning in 2002, when Bangor began a three-year run of hosting the National Folk Festival. The only year that the event was not in the red was 2005, the first year of the American Folk Festival.
Essentially, the city of Bangor paid the festival’s bill and was reimbursed with revenue from the three-day event. Even when expenses consistently exceeded revenue, the city kept extending its line of credit — until now.
Before any fundraising begins, the city and festival need to clarify their relationship, putting more distance between the two.
Further, if the festival can’t pay its bills, that should be its responsibility, not the city’s.
To make matters worse, shortly after this year’s festival in late August, organizers held a news conference to announce that they needed another $130,000 to cover the 2009 fees. Heavy rain on Saturday was blamed for the shortfall. At that time, organizers said they might have to charge admission in the future to cover the debt. The $280,000 was not mentioned at that time.
Now that it is clear the festival’s woes are much more serious, organizers and supporters need to be more creative — and open — about getting the event on stable financial footing.
On the expense side, many questions need to be answered. For example, why is the festival still paying nearly $120,000 a year to the National Council for the Traditional Arts, the organization that runs the national festival? After eight years, does the Bangor festival still need this much help in finding and booking acts? If so, is a staff of three needed in Bangor to organize and manage the festival?
There are also questions on the revenue side. For example, is the festival being too limited in its promotion and fundraising? Most people don’t start focusing on the festival until August. Is there a way to build and sustain excitement and support throughout the year? Several low-cost fundraising events throughout the year could do this.
From a broader perspective, what if the festival were tied to a well-known local or national charity? The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, held on the waterfront less than a month after the folk festival, raised $300,000, more than $40,000 higher than the previous year.
The bucket brigade, in which volunteers wander through the festival crowd seeking cash donations, has seen steady growth, bringing in more than $107,000 this year. But giving the festival a broader cause than music and entertainment would likely lead people to be more generous. In addition, learning from the fundraising and organizing expertise of events like the Komen race would benefit the festival.
The folk festival is an important part of the city’s identify. To remain so, it needs to be re-imagined and reinvigorated.