Cultural commission reduces funds to Folk Festival

Legendary reggae singer-songwriter Clinton Fearon winks at his percussionist Ire on Sunday at the 2009 American Folk Festival Dance Stage as the eight-member band had all feet on the dance floor moving for their last song of the festival. Buy Photo
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY KEVIN BENNETT
Legendary reggae singer-songwriter Clinton Fearon winks at his percussionist Ire on Sunday at the 2009 American Folk Festival Dance Stage as the eight-member band had all feet on the dance floor moving for their last song of the festival. Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 21, 2010, at 10:44 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The city’s Commission on Cultural Development approved a $45,000 grant on Thursday to help fund the 2010 American Folk Festival, but the amount is significantly smaller than past grants and it’s not guaranteed.

Bangor city councilors have the final say, and their support may not come easily.

Councilor Geoff Gratwick, who also is a member of the cultural commission, expressed concerns that the folk festival staff and board of directors has not been transparent with the city about its 2010 budget plans.

“I don’t represent the entire council, but there seems to be a major disconnect between the folk festival board and the council,” Gratwick said Thursday. “There are major questions.”

Cary Weston, the council’s representative on the folk festival’s board of directors, said flatly that the council would not approve the cultural commission’s recommendation until there is additional discussion about the festival’s proposed budget for 2010.

“We will not accept or appropriate any funds to the festival until we’re confident that their budget is one that moves the festival forward in a fiscally responsible way,” he said.

Even if the council does approve the $45,000 grant, it would still be less than what the festival has received in the past from the cultural commission. That amount has ranged between $72,000 and $85,000 annually.

The City Council is expected to hold a workshop Monday, Feb. 1, to discuss the folk festival’s 2010 budget and decide what role Bangor should play in the event’s future.

Executive Director Heather McCarthy told members of the commission Thursday that her staff and board has been working tirelessly on a budget, but she was not ready to release it this week.

However, preliminary budget scenarios that were provided recently to the Bangor Daily News by a source involved with the festival show potential reductions in a number of operational areas.

The options include large cuts in programming costs, from $260,000 in 2009 to perhaps as low as $170,000 in 2010, and severing the festival’s longstanding relationship with the National Council for Traditional Arts, a savings of $118,000 over 2009. The budget options also address historical debt to the city of Bangor, which has accumulated over five years to approximately $280,000, as well as $130,000 in debt still owed to 2009 festival vendors.

Some city councilors have said privately that they are disappointed the festival’s budget discussions have not included options to reduce administrative costs. Since its inception, the festival has spent roughly $200,000, or one-fifth of its total budget, on staff salaries and benefits. In addition to McCarthy, the festival employs a full-time development professional and a full-time administrative assistant.

The preliminary budget scenarios also project $1.13 million in revenue, which assumes slight increases in the level of corporate, foundation and individual support over what the festival received in 2009. However, since 2005, the festival has never generated more than $827,286 in revenue, according to financial information provided by the city’s finance director.

It’s unclear what the final budget will look like or whether it will differ substantially from the preliminary options.

Earlier this month, the festival received an anonymous donation of $100,000, which was used mostly to pay down the debt owed to the 2009 festival. Additionally, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded the festival a $30,000 Access to Artistic Excellence grant designated specifically to support artists’ fees, travel costs and production expenses for participants in the 2010 festival. McCarthy also said Thursday that she has spoken with some performers about the possibility of reducing their fees and the response has been positive.

The American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront began in 2005 after the National Folk Festival ended a three-year run in Bangor. The event has drawn tens of thousands to the city each August but has operated at a substantial loss in all but one year the festival has been held.

Past years’ debts have been paid by the city through a revolving line of credit and then reimbursed with revenue from the three-day event. Even when expenses consistently exceeded revenues, the city kept extending its line of credit until last year, when the debt reached $280,000 and the city said no more.

That money is entirely separate from annual appropriations made to the festival by the cultural commission, which have ranged between $72,000 and $85,000 since 2005. The debt also does not include tens of thousands of dollars in in-kind services provided by the city.

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