Economic meltdown takes the funding out of festivals

The city of Boston has asked organizers of the Tall Ships event to pay nearly $1 million in public safety costs in advance. The city of Boston has asked organizers of the Tall Ships event to pay nearly $1 million in public safety costs in advance. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff/ File 2000)
By Patrick Walters
Associated Press / May 24, 2009
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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 fund-raising 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 multiblock or multiday 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 in advance because the city can no longer afford it.

  • In Detroit, Governor 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 fund-raising 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; fund-raising, membership, and community pride can go down with it.