The American Folk Festival will take over the Bangor waterfront again this weekend, 17 years after its first iteration helped convince people that the city’s waterfront was worth reviving and could even become a destination.
While the festival is still a major draw to the waterfront each year the weekend before Labor Day weekend, the confab has gradually become a smaller version of itself, according to available tax documents and concert programs from recent years.
Bangor is a different place from when the National Folk Festival first came to town in 2002, with an increasingly vibrant downtown area and multiple new entertainment options, such as the Cross Insurance Center and Hollywood Casino. The Bangor Waterfront itself hosts countless events throughout the summer and is home to the Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion, the largest music venue in northern New England.
Meanwhile, the folk festival’s contraction will continue this weekend, when 14 artists perform on three stages — down from 24 artists performing on six stages a decade ago, in 2009.
In many ways, 2009 marked a high point for the festival — in total fundraising, attendance, and numbers of volunteers and performers. Since then, the general trend has been toward a smaller festival that largely hews to the same basic format each year on a waterfront that has changed around it.
“I think we’ve created a really intimate experience,” said Nicole Gogan, who has chaired the festival’s board since 2017. “You can see these artists up close and personal. You can see everything that the festival has to offer now.”
Fundraising is the festival’s biggest challenge, she said, with fundraising efforts that have included a concert in 2009 and 2011 and a Color Run 5K that ran from 2014 until earlier this year.
“I think that’s something that all nonprofits face, regardless of what sort of service they provide,” said Gogan, an assistant vice president at Camden National Bank. “We are very lucky in that we have some really dedicated partners in the community.”
In 2009, the festival brought in more than $1 million in revenue, according to its IRS tax filing for that year. By 2017, the most recent year for which tax data are available, total revenue had dropped more than 40 percent, to about $625,000.
In that time, the amount the festival spent on its performing artists also dropped by nearly half, to about $56,000 in 2017 from $104,000 in 2009. The festival also estimated that its number of volunteers fell from 900 in 2009 to 550 in 2017.
The festival reported that 150,000 people attended in 2009. Though it has not released official numbers on attendance since 2012, spokesperson Dan Cashman last year said the event has attracted around 90,000 people each year since 2013.
This year, the festival will be further reduced in physical size, with just three stages hosting performers for the event’s three days. That’s due to ongoing construction work on a sewer project on the Bangor Waterfront, forcing the move of the Railroad Stage, the festival’s largest. Rather than maintain four stages, organizers chose to combine the Penobscot Stage — the tented stage next to the main food court area — and the Railroad Stage into one venue along the Penobscot River.
American Folk Festival organizers maintain that the increased cultural and entertainment options in the Bangor region help the festival. But it’s clear that what the festival offers is less a novelty in the Bangor of 2019 than it was in the Bangor of 2002. The idea of the waterfront hosting food vendors offering an array of cuisines and performances from world-renowned musicians is no longer a once-a-year occasion — it’s just an average summer Tuesday.
Rick Fournier, a vice president at Bangor Savings Bank who has been on the festival board since 2007, said that after each festival, organizers survey attendees for their thoughts on that year’s event. Generally, he said, the availability of nearby parking is the biggest concern among the festival’s fans.
“Some of our regular attendees tend to skew a little older, so mobility can be a real concern,” Fournier said. “Luckily, now the folk festival will be able to use the new parking garage at Bangor Savings, which should really help a lot of people.”
According to the festival’s website, its two largest sponsors are the City of Bangor and the Bangor Daily News. The BDN prints the festival program and gives the organization free print and digital advertising. The city gives an in-kind donation, providing the festival with electricity, police officers and other municipal workers.
In previous years, the city also gave the festival financial support, including a line of credit between 2005 and 2010 that amounted to approximately $280,000 in total, and between $75,000 and $85,000 in grant funding each year via the Commission on Cultural Development. In 2011, the City Council voted to end both the line of credit and the grant funding.
The festival is still working to pay down that $280,000 debt. It has paid between $15,000 and $30,000 each year since 2011, and now owes around $100,000, said Cathy Conlow, Bangor’s city manager. Last year, knowing that the festival would have to contend with the city’s ongoing waterfront construction, the city agreed to let the organization delay payment by a year.
“They’ve been paying it off pretty religiously, and given everything that’s happening, we decided to put the payment on hiatus for a year,” Conlow said. “We’re going to revisit everything after this year’s festival to see where they are at, financially.”
Though the Railroad Street construction project is expected to be completed by the end of the year, a second project will then begin in 2020. That project will install the first of three sewage storage tanks along the waterfront in the area behind Tim Hortons on Main Street — where the Dance Pavilion has traditionally stood. That project is expected to disrupt the footprint of the festival for 2020 and 2021.
It remains to be seen what the festival will look like in those years. Gogan and Fournier did not say whether options such as working with Waterfront Concerts to utilize part or all of the Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion or moving the festival footprint closer to the downtown business district are on the table.
The event this weekend includes artists ranging from the Portland-based Rwandan dance ensemble Ikirenga Cy’intore to Quebecois band Les Tireux D’Roches. John Bapst High School’s music program and puppets from Portland’s Shoestring Theatre will together lead the kickoff parade at 6 p.m. Friday. For more information, visit americanfolkfestival.com.