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Festivals Still Blue about the Green

For local music and cultural festivals, the ghost of the Great Recession is still a haunting presence.

“Every year is a struggle and somehow you get there,” said Kevin Ryan, attorney and board member of the Syracuse St. Patrick’s Parade. It is among several Syracuse-area festivals coping with less government funding and fewer donations from supporters because of the weak economy.

To pay for the $35,000 it costs, for example, the St. Patrick’s Parade didn’t receive any government money this year, Ryan said. The parade used to benefit from mini-grants provided by state Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse. More organizations requesting funds from the same sources is the main cause of scarcity, Ryan said.

Larry Luttinger, executive director at the CNY Jazz Arts Foundation, agrees that government funding has languished. “We’re still economically depressed in CNY, so there’s no growth in public sector support,” he says.

The Northeast Jazz and Wine Festival is an example of the difficulties festivals are facing. It went from a three-day event to a two-day attraction in 2012. The festival is one of Syracuse ArtsWeek’s largest events and has a budget of about $75,000 for its 2014 edition, Luttinger said.

Luttinger argues that the most troubling trend for Syracuse festivals is decision-making at corporations being taken from a local to a regional level. “Many corporations that used to have control over local giving no longer have control,” he said.

To save resources, the Syracuse Juneteenth celebration, which commemorates the end of African-Americans’ slavery,  might not take place this summer, said Kevin Henry, vice president of the festival. Its board is debating whether to cancel the event for 2014 and mount a bigger festival next year. “The idea on this is not so much that the Juneteenth festival is going away but is coming back the way it used to be in 2015,” Henry said. The festival’s budget has deflated in the past five years from more than $50,000 to between $15,000 and $20,000, Henry said.

The success of the festival depends on the quality of its entertainment, Henry said. Well-known headliners bring more people to the celebration, generating an incentive for businesses to pay the vending fee.  Last summer it was $400 for food vendors. For the last couple of years, the festival has been relying on local bands and volunteers, drawing fewer people and losing vendors.

On the other hand, The New York State Blues Fest will come back this year with a budget of $97,500, said president and founder Jim Murphy. In 2013, the organizers canceled the festival because it had a deficit from 2012, Murphy said. The festival bears a debt now of approximately $28,000, Murphy said. The money raised before the festival will be used to organize the event but not to pay off its debt.

“We’ll raise that money through the festival and through vendors and other services that we provide over the weekend,” Murphy said.

Festivals benefit the Syracuse community both culturally and economically, organizers say.

Syracuse ArtsWeek—a week-long program of festivals and community events—generated $2.89 million in revenue last July, according to a survey report by Research and Marketing Strategies Inc., a market research and consulting firm based out of Baldwinsville. The events drew an estimated 66,604 visitors who spent on average $92.29 on dining, vendors, lodging, parking and artists.

The Downtown Committee of Syracuse helps promote all festivals  in the downtown area and organizes the AmeriCU Syracuse Arts and Crafts Festival, said Lisa Romeo, director of communications at the committee. The Arts and Crafts Festival is one of Syracuse ArtsWeek’s anchor events along with the Northeast Jazz and Wine Festival. The venue drew nearly 30,000 visitors last summer, according to the marketing research report.

(Pablo Mayo Cerqueiro is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)

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Posted in Spring 2014 | Comments Off