There are few things that happen in Lafayette to unite our community more than Festival International de Louisiane. Its legion of volunteers comprises thousands of teens and grandmothers, professionals and working class folks, newbies and veterans who generously handle everything from cash to trash. (Thank you!) The collective audience has grown over the past 28 years to almost half a million, and in those faces we can see how culturally diverse Lafayette is becoming — a glorious thing to celebrate and share. And through Festival programming, our children are learning invaluable lessons about the citizens with whom we share this planet, even if they can never afford to leave Louisiana.
Festival International has also been characterized by a vibe that requires little more than a police presence; arrests have been almost non-existent since the very beginning. And though Fest operated with no executive director for much of the past year, this year’s event was as amazing as ever, an auspicious debut for Missy Paschke-Wood, who took the helm in January, and huge accomplishment for the small Fest staff and all-volunteer board.
But Fest is also at a tipping point. With evening crowds on Jefferson Street likened to Bourbon Street on Lundi Gras, there is no doubt it has outgrown its existing footprint. Some say Fest has outgrown downtown altogether, noting that it could financially benefit from a move away from the growing number of bars and restaurants that lure patrons from the official Fest vendors whose sales fill Fest coffers. Those lost sales are extremely important; for despite its success, Fest funding is perennially precarious. Advocates of a move also note that either admission fees could be collected or pin sales enhanced in a different location with controlled access.
As a Fest founder and veteran board member of the first 12 years, I would hate to see our beloved Festival veer toward the Jazz Fest model. Our inspiration came from some of the great events in French Canada, including Festival d’ete de Québec and Les FrancoFolies, which are essentially free and transform the downtowns of Quebec City and Montreal, respectively, into giant outdoor stages. There are big challenges to our current model, however, and it’s time to have some serious conversations about the future of Festival. Growth is a high-grade problem, but still a problem that must be solved, n’est ce pas?