On Saturday, May 16th, I attended a meeting of 35 business owners who gathered at Georgie's Alibi to discuss a financial crisis that, if not resolved, might mean the cancellation of Wilton Manors' annual Gay Pride event, Stonewall Street Festival, scheduled for June 20-21.
With Pride events across the country facing the common fiscal difficulties caused by the current bad economy, the challenges faced by the organizers of this festival come as no surprise. Overhead is costly. Donations are down. Travel and tourism spending are diminished. What does come as a surprise is the fact that basic issues involving the immediate survival or death of this festival are still being discussed a mere six weeks before its occurrence. Should the festival be a two-day or a one-day event? Should the parade be at night or during the day? Should there be one stage or three? Should the festival be in June or in September? Is the festival just the concern of the businesses on Wilton Drive, or does it encompass the regional business community.
I was surprised to learn that Lance Horton, the Executive Director of the festival, had been hired very recently. In April! Even in flush times, it is difficult to step into a leadership position with only a few months time in which to organize and put on "a show". I know this from personal experience, having been named the director of a large three-week summer festival only two months before its start, with no bookings for entertainment, no food vendors under contract, serious electrical and plumbing problems in the building I was asked to manage, a disgruntled board of directors and a Governor scheduled to visit those premises and march in a parade that had yet to be organized. Oy. For four years I welcomed half a million visitors into my building annually and managed to turn a profit each year. I know it can be done. I listened carefully to Mr. Horton's presentation to see if he had the skills necessary to pull it off.
What became clear in the course of the meeting is that some business owners harbor some hard feelings, resentment and the serious need to express some anger about setting the record straight. It was sad to see that some of the key organizers of the festival feel that they have not yet had a chance to speak about their issues - even those issues that were not really on point - and it was sad to observe that raising funds and cutting expenses might be the least of Mr. Horton's problems. He will first need to earn some serious confidence and support with the persons at that meeting. If I had been in his shoes, I would have had that accomplished long before I had scheduled an emergency meeting to discuss finances. (Please keep in mind that it is very easy to pontificate about management skills from the sidelines of a situation like this. It would be totally unfair for me to judge Mr. Horton's abilities and tactics based on my observations at this one meeting.)
Mr. Horton distributed a Stonewall Street Festival Expenses two-pager that also included Committed Sponsors. This document pegs expenses at $136,419.00, with cash commitments at $39,750.00 and in-kind commitments at $19,500.00. This document is not a complete financial statement (and made me very curious to see the festival's P&L and balance sheet for the last three years). Nor is it a complete budget. I think it was devised to elicit some financial support from the folks in the room, many of whom have yet to pledge any funds. Understanding that this might be Mr. Horton's motivation, many of the business owners reminded him that they derive no financial benefit from the festival. Some of them actually have diminished sales during its run. One clothing merchant got a big laugh when he said "The last thing anyone wants to do when they are drunk and sweaty is try on a pair of my stupid $300 jeans." One of the bar owners, questioning the need for an elaborate schedule of events, made the point that visitors are going to "get drunk, take off their shirts and party no matter what. That's why they come here."
The single largest expense on Mr. Horton's list was the main stage/sound/light/talent at $40,000.00. I remember spending a fraction of that amount for my three week festival so I found this amount questionable and I was glad to hear some suggestions for its reduction.
I was very surprised to hear that the festival planned to make a video marking the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots. After the meeting, I spoke with the man who described that project. He was unaware of the fact that The Stonewall Library and Archives has already done exactly that. He intends to contact the library to see if the festival might use the library's product. This gave me some satisfaction that perhaps my presence at the meeting had accomplished some good, and it rather justified my eating one of the excellent sandwiches provided by Georgie's.
I kept to myself an opinion about the value of spending even a dime on the making of a video of Sharon Gless talking about Stonewall. It seems she cannot attend the festival but is willing to have her comments recorded. The person making the video warned the group that there would be expenses involved. Even if they had a million bucks to spend, I wouldn't...well I'll just bite my tongue.