How to keep Festival International free, funky, family-friendly and, most of all, downtown

FestInt 1130 RMay

Yeah, yeah, we know — Festival International de Louisiane was at the end of April. It’s June. What’s up with that?

What’s up with that is FIL is the biggest, best, coolest party Lafayette throws each year, and it’s getting so robust and so popular that it’s straining the resources of Downtown where it belongs and must remain. Let’s talk about ensuring its health and longevity now, not later.

Upwards of 400,000 people attended the 2014 event; that’s a lot of humanity in a relatively confined area. As IND Co-Publisher Cherry Fisher May observed in a short column in last month’s issue — a story that was much-read and -shared on social media the week it was published — Jefferson Street on Saturday night looked like Bourbon Street on Lundi Gras.

That’s an embarrassment of riches we suppose. It’s great to be popular. What began in 1987 as a much more modest Francophone music and cultural festival with a few stages and satellite programming has exploded into a major regional attraction that even the folks in New Orleans, home to big-bad Jazz Fest, have begun talking about and attending. FIL draws visitors to Lafayette from around the world. It is routinely nominated (and wins) as a “Best World Music Festival” in travel pubs.

But it is a nonprofit event put on by a nonprofit organization with the loyal aid of hundreds of volunteers, and as with most nonprofits, its finances are precarious. Who among us faithful FIL devotees has forgotten 1997 — the year of the deluge — when thunderstorms washed away many of the concerts? It’s been said, although a former board president calls it an exaggeration, that Festival International is one rainy weekend away from financial ruin. Maybe that’s a stretch. Maybe it isn’t.

FestInt RMAY 6783Festival International’s 2014 budget was roughly $1.4 million. The financials on this year’s event aren’t in yet, but most years FIL just breaks even — that is to say its revenues equal or slightly exceed its overhead. For a nonprofit that’s OK. But for a one-off annual event that depends on the cooperation of Mother Nature, it’s also in a potentially perilous position.

FIL’s 2012 Form 990, which nonprofits file with the Internal Revenue Service (2012 is the most recent year available at GuideStar.com, a nonprofit-tracking website, and covers the 2011 festival), FIL’s revenue was $1,009,806 but its total expenses were $1,010,680, meaning it cost $684 more to put on Festival than it earned in revenue. For such a major event that’s not bad at all and represents a remarkable level of management dexterity, and fortunately the nonprofit festival listed a little more than $385,000 in the bank. But, imagine again a Friday, Saturday and Sunday of FIL with inclement weather. That little financial pillow quickly becomes a whoopee cushion.

The premise here is this community must find ways to keep Festival International de Louisiane free and Downtown while maintaining that funky yet family-friendly vibe for which it’s famous. We reached out to several current and former Festival board and staff members as well as reps from the tourism and culture sectors to get their take on ensuring the event’s longevity and financial health.
FIL, after all, is not Mardi Gras with its coarse, drunken debauchery. Fest has its soaky Saturnalia to be sure, but it also has a cultural elegance and communalism that are unique.

Here’s how to keep it that way:

EXPAND THE CONFIGURATION

Festival must find a way to broaden its footprint in Downtown Lafayette. If you’ve tried to get from Scène International (the main stage at Polk, Taylor and Garfield streets) to Scène Fais Do Do (Jefferson, Convent, Main streets) you know it’s a gauntlet.

The logical direction to expand is north and west toward Congress/Second street near the IberiaBank building and the Lafayette Public Library, which is under renovation, and toward the wide open space along Grant Street and the railroad tracks.

But expanding FIL’s configuration is easier said than done. “FIL is currently utilizing pretty much every square inch of real estate that is made available to us,” says current board member and past board president Russell Walters, with an emphasis on “made available to us.”

“Many of the Downtown parking lots are privately owned and have year-round contracts with their clients or are used for their own employees,” Walters continues. “Having the owners of these lots afford FIL the chance to lease their lots for the weekend or in some cases the week is a true sacrifice that all should really appreciate. In order to expand our venues or reconfigure the existing layout, more real estate may be needed that some businesses cannot afford or are not willing to give up.”

Cathy Webre, the retired executive director of the Downtown Development Authority who was a co-founder of FIL and served as its vice president of programming for the event’s first six years, suggests utilizing DDA’s new urban design center to “identify and vet other site and stage options that could perhaps free up the streets a bit more to accommodate pedestrian volumes and traffic flows.”

Webre offers another idea for alleviating congestion in the center of the action where most of the merchandise vendors are located: Use the Vermilion Street parking garage as a “vertical merchandise mall.”

FIL-IRS-formADDRESS THE RAIN ANGELS ROI

The Rain Angels program was created following the 1997 deluge (see intro) as a financial buffer against bad weather. For a $2,000 donation, a Rain Angel gets daily admission for two to a VIP tent near the main stage with complimentary buffet and bar Thursday and Friday evenings and all day Saturday and Sunday, plus T-shirts and other merchandise.

Problem is, the cost of providing the perks for the Rain Angels eats substantially into the pot of cash the program was designed to create. The return on investment for Rain Angels is only about 15 to 20 percent. That number needs to rise substantially. Eighty percent is a reasonable goal says FIL Executive Director Missy Paschke-Wood.

“I kept being surprised by how much we were giving in exchange for how much we were receiving, because for most organizations a healthy equation is maybe 20 percent of your gifts will be thank-you gifts, and our percentages were substantially higher,” says Paschke-Wood, who was hired in January. “Once we realized it, we gave a couple of whispers to some Rain Angels, and there was an immediate response of helping us look at it together, and that is such a testament to the quality of person and the quality of donors that those Rain Angels are. We’re going to have some great dialogues later on this summer with them.”

MORE MONEY FROM LAFAYETTE CONSOLIDATED GOVERNMENT

This is probably the least attainable objective but one that must be discussed. LCG finances are tight; we get it.

Festival gets $72,000 annually in direct funding from local government (plus roughly another $60,000 in grants that come from LCG but are distributed through the Acadiana Center for the Arts on a competitive basis, so there’s no guarantee the grant funding will remain stable). The $72K comes from the city of Lafayette budget. But, as most of our readers probably know, consolidated government comprises separate city and parish budgets, and the parish is a financial drain on the city. Throw in a parsimonious tea party bloc on the City-Parish Council that doesn’t appreciate the concept of return on investment — at last count (an economic impact study conducted around 2008-09), FIL has an economic impact of $22 million on the local economy (a number that is most certainly higher now) and generated about $1 million in tax revenue (also higher now) — and the odds of getting LCG to pump more cash in this gem of an economic engine are slim.

Would you pay $100,000 to make $1 million? How about $200,000 or $300,000?

Consider this: FIL was patterned after Festival d’été de Québec, a (mostly) free summer music-culture festival in Quebec City. Festival d’été de Québec gets about 50 percent of its funding in direct cash from city and provincial government.

“The city hasn’t come across with enough money compared to other festivals we explored,” says Phil Lank, former director of community development for the city of Lafayette. Lank was a co-founder of FIL back in ’87; he traveled with a delegation from Lafayette to Canada to look at its festival models and help develop one for Lafayette. “The public funding is usually around 50 percent, and our public funding is around 15 percent, and therein lies an inequity because the city benefits in so many ways — not just in the tax revenue.  

“It’s a big-time festival in a small city — a major, major event in a small city. And what that does is attract people and young professionals and retain them here. Who knows what that amounts to in terms of dollars. That’s where the major return is, right there. People love Lafayette because of our culture and our activities and festivals. That’s why they come here and that’s why they stay here.”

“Justify a request for increased funding from local government armed with statistics for local tax revenues collected during Festival week,” says artist Herman Mhire, a co-founder of FIL and former director of the University Art Museum. Simple enough. Moreover, as Lank points out, FIL’s inaugural budget was $125,000 and the city ponied up $75K. The event’s budget is now 10 times higher and the government subsidy has dipped (albeit remained steady for a decade). That’s whack. Or rather out of whack.

ELIMINATE SPECIAL PERMITS

Photo by Kari Walker  
special-permit kw  
A plate glass window was removed from Gordon Square on Vermilion
Street by a restaurant tenant and replaced with a temporary bar in
the days leading up to Fest. Special permits allowing eateries to sell
booze from windows and sidewalk stands cut into FIL's bottom line.
 

This one could just as easily fall under the rubric “Don’t Kill the Goose That Lays the Golden Eggs.”

Nearly a third of Festival International’s revenue comes from the sale of the tickets that are redeemed for beverages, overwhelmingly beer (we presume).

Unlike years past, the city agreed this year to issue special vending permits to downtown restaurants to allow them to set up sidewalk and window stands to sell booze (and other stuff). The permits — two are needed: one issued by the city the other by the state with each costing $100 — were issued after lobbying by the restaurants. A total of 10 special permits were issued to the restaurateurs. So the city made a grand in permit fees, the restaurants made a fortune in additional alcohol sales and Festival got the shaft.

“Unfortunately, FIL was definitely hurt financially by this,” says board member Walters — a claim confirmed by FIL staff, although final returns on this year’s event are not yet in. Walters says FIL staff and board members heard about the pressure from restaurants to get their hands on permits and chose not to fight the issue, deciding that good relations with Downtown merchants outweighed the potential loss of revenue.

And how could the issuance of such permits not cut into Festival’s bottom line?

This has to end. Downtown restaurants and bars make a killing during the five days of FIL. We support free enterprise, but surely there has to be some restraint based on recognition by the restaurants that tapping into a significant source of revenue for Fest threatens its financial health.

Lank doesn’t mince words: “What kind of idiots are these who are making decisions like that?” he asks, referring to bureaucrats involved in the issuance of permits. “I don’t know who does that at City Hall, but somebody needs to get their ass kicked and [City-Parish President] Joey [Durel] needs to say, ‘We’re not doing this anymore.’ Somebody needs to take a leadership role on it.”
Plus, as Walters points out, the sidewalk sales exacerbated the pedestrian congestion along Jefferson Street and environs.

“The police did a good job of managing the need to shift resources,” Walters notes. “This shift in business practice by Downtown [restaurants] is unfortunate and will be considered in future planning by Festival organizers as well as the police.”

LEVY A SALES TAX DOWNTOWN DURING APRIL

In our view this is the most intriguing and quite possibly most do-able means of raising cash for Festival. It would take a resolution by the council clearing the way for an election in which voters decide whether to impose it.

Here’s the idea: During the month of April in Lafayette’s Central Business District, add a penny to the city sales tax and direct that extra revenue to Festival. It could even be limited to food and beverage sales. The council’s fiscal hawks are off the hook because the council only has to approve a resolution setting an election; it’s not imposing a tax — the voters in the district, residents and business owners, would decide whether to impose this tax, and it would be paid by everyone who takes advantage of Downtown’s many dining and nightlife offerings.

“I’ll tell you it’s going to generate a hell of a lot of money,” insists Lank, who first offered the tax idea. “It’s an economic development initiative, and Festival International was first and foremost set up as an economic development issue; it was a cultural initiative, but it was simultaneously an economic development initiative from the outset. So, there’s no reason why an economic development type of program shouldn’t help sustain it.”

This idea is not unlike Durel’s “One Cent, One Year, One Project” tax proposal, which this year will be put before voters to decide about funding a new terminal at Lafayette Regional Airport. It’s a tax that is temporary and goes to a specific funding need. In the case of FIL it would be an annual tax only during the month of April.

We would happily pay an additional 10 cents for French Press’s Reuben sandwich and sweet potato fries for lunch knowing the extra dime went to FIL. (We use that as an example because French Press needs to get that damn sandwich back on the its menu on a regular basis. Come on, y’all!)

CREATE A TASK FORCE TO FIND SOLUTIONS

Fortunately this one is already in the pipeline, according the Paschke-Wood, FIL’s new executive director. She tells us a group of stakeholders including Fest staff and board, along with the public and private sector, will begin meeting this summer to discuss the many ideas for keeping Festival International free and Downtown.

Can corporate sponsorships be expanded? Is FIL charging enough for them?

What opportunities are there for small businesses in Acadiana to help (and, conversely, benefit)?

What about placing donation kiosks around the festival grounds? Throw in a quarter or a $20 bill. That could really add up.

Should Festival create an educational outreach program to groom the next generation of donors, volunteers and Rain Angels?

There’s much to consider.

All agree FIL needs an endowment — a pot of cash that grows annually and can buffer the event from the vagaries of bad weather and a bad economy.

“This is an organization that is extremely healthy. But everyone is right: We need an endowment,” Paschke-Wood acknowledges. “We need larger personal gifts. We need to talk about planned giving. That’s something I don’t think we’ve ever asked — for an individual donor to give more than around $2,000. And if you look at other large organizations, it’s not uncommon for people to give a legacy gift when they pass away. It’s also not uncommon to receive a large gift in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars from a family foundation or even an individual.”

“Is bigger really better? What are our objectives as a community?” Webre asks rhetorically.

We can name two objectives: keep Festival International de Louisiana free and keep it Downtown.

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