Philadephia, other cities find few funds for festivals

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- The leaders of the "Sunday Out" festival watched thousands brighten a gray day in early May by celebrating in the wet Philadelphia streets with multicolored umbrellas, rainbow-hued hats and colorful necklaces in the name of gay pride.

But the mood darkened for the event's sponsor, Equality Forum, when a new bill arrived later: $17,000 for police, street cleaning and ambulance services that for years the city had provided for free.

Cash-strapped Philadelphia says it can no longer waive the costs of city services for festival organizers, and the national forecast is similarly cloudy for other events. Small festivals and huge parades alike are scaling back, stepping up fundraising or even considering canceling as they worry about how to survive under new financial realities:

-- In New York, officials aren't accepting new applications for multi-block or multi-day events because of police overtime costs, said city spokeswoman Evelyne Erskine. The city is also raising fees for promotional events, charging as much as $38,000 for a large event.

For street fairs, New York charges 20 percent of the vendor fees collected. That netted the city $1.6 million in 2007.

-- In Boston, the city says organizers of the Sail Boston tall ships event must pay nearly $1 million in public safety costs because the city can no longer afford it.

-- In Detroit, Gov. Jennifer Granholm plans to end state funding for the Michigan State Fair after this year. Fairs also have been canceled in the Detroit-area cities of Novi and Utica.

-- In New Jersey, the popular Appel Farm outdoor music festival in Elmer was canceled because of decreased state funding and fundraising struggles. Other towns are canceling or shortening fireworks shows.

The challenge is stark in Philadelphia, where many groups paid nothing for years. The city gets requests for about 1,200 events a year, and costs for city services can range from a few thousand dollars for a small event to several hundred thousand dollars for a large parade.

The city often waived those costs in the past, taking into consideration an event's economic impact and community pride. But that cost the city millions, and with revenues down, those days are done.

"The party's over for now, but in a good way," said Jazelle Jones, the city's deputy managing director, whose office is still trying to tally how much money will be saved.

In addition to money, community groups worry about morale. Without festivals, a group's visibility declines; fundraising, membership and community pride can go down with it.

That's why Zakariyya Abdur Rahman decided to push forward with the Give Back to the Community summer festival in the city's Nicetown section -- even though his group will have to pay thousands more this year.

"It's very impactful for this community," Abdur-Rahman said.

Late last year, a highly publicized dispute about paying for city services threatened to cancel the Mummers Parade, a century-old Philadelphia tradition in which costumed revelers march through the city on New Year's Day.

Mayor Michael Nutter and the city withdrew thousands of dollars in support -- including prize money-- and asked parade organizers to pay about $50,000 in service costs. Both sides eventually agreed on a compromise that shortened the parade to 6 hours, and the Mummers made up the difference in donations.

On a frigid New Year's Day 2009, crowds were thinner because of the cold, but the parade went on -- although not without some frustration over the cuts. A group called Froggy Carr, marching with black-and-white and green frog umbrellas, had a sign that read: "Frog U Mayor Nutter."

Andre Bright, president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council of Philadelphia, wondered what cuts would mean for the Greek Picnic, a large summer festival organized by black fraternities.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God, if they're going to stop the Mummers Parade, what are they going to do to us?'" said Bright, who estimates his event has 60/40 odds of happening this year. "It just does seem kind of odd to me that the city would basically pass off a $25,000 bill to us when we bring in at least twice that amount."

The gay rights group Equality Forum got sticker shock shortly before its annual Sunday Out street festival on May 3. Not only did the group owe about $17,000 for services, the city was no longer able to offer a $115,000 grant.

But Malcolm Lazin, Equality Forum's executive director, said the group found out about the extra costs too late to make changes this year.

"From a financial standpoint, it was devastating," Lazin said. Next year, the group may charge an admission fee, promote less or move to a location where police aren't needed.

In the past, Philadelphia has been inconsistent in whether it has charged or not charged groups for services; not everyone has gotten services for free. Groups that paid for years say it's about time the city started charging everyone.

The West Oak Lane Jazz Festival has paid for city services like police and EMS since its inception in 2004 and expects to shell out about $150,00 this year. Organizers were shocked when they learned not everyone else was paying.

"When I found that out, I said, 'Yo, guys, come on,'" said Jack Kitchen, president and CEO of the event's sponsor, Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp. "You have to expect to pay for services in this economy."

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