A week or so ago, the local paper asked for my thoughts on the provision of money from the Special Events Fund for the recent Borealis Music Festival. This fund is $50,000 that council sets aside each year, to be provided to local groups who want assistance in putting on events of provincial or national attraction. I suggested to the reporter that we need to rethink our whole policy around providing money to events - maybe it's time to consider setting up a levy on hotels, as other communities do, with the levy going into a fund for these events, rather than council taking money out of tax revenues. After all, hotels are the ones who benefit directly from people coming to these events - the city gains no revenues.
After Andrea read the article, I asked her if I came across as too curmudgeonly. She laughed, and said that I was no worse than usual. And then she said that it was too bad that it often seems that I'm the only curmudgeon on council - the only one who insists on asking questions when it comes to spending tax payers' money. Which is funny, because I think that asking questions about how we spend people's money is a huge part of the job - we're not elected just to be automatic cheerleaders for every idea that comes forward, although that seems to be the perception of some of my colleagues.
It's not that I'm against events such as the Borealis Music Festival. When the proposal came before council, I pointed out that it did not qualify under one of the basic criteria - applications for use of this fund are supposed to be submitted a year before the event. That's because putting on an event of provincial or national attraction requires a lot of time to plan and execute. The music festival was less than five months away.
At the time I identified several weak spots in their budget - their attendance projections (15,000 people), were wildly ambitious, and their estimates for revenue from beer and souvenir sales were also extremely high, and tied to the same proposed attendance. They were going to transport people from Christopher, Emma and Candle Lakes, without considering that on a long weekend, someone who is at the lake is likely there because that's where they want to be, not back in Prince Albert. And I questioned the wisdom of not branding the type of music that was going to be offered - most people like to know what they're buying before they shell out a significant amount of money.
I pointed these things out not to be mean, or discouraging, but to increase their chances of holding an event that would be seen as a success, with the potential to grow in the future. I understand the whole idea of dreaming big, but my responsibility is to try to make sure that tax dollars are spent with regard to the benefit of the community as a whole.
But my questions weren't answered - in fact one of my colleagues said at the meeting that such questions were ridiculous and a waste of time. And seven members of council voted to give the music festival $15,000 from the Special Events Fund, and a equal amount of in-kind contributions - hanging banners, mowing grass, trimming trees, and other such services. And we agreed to block off a large portion of Kinsmen Park for the duration, making it unavailable for local residents.
Now apparently the initial budget was revised over the next few months, as the organizers realized that they weren't attracting the numbers that they had hoped for. I don't know how well they kept their other sponsors informed, but they didn't share these downward projections with council. So it was rather a surprise to hear after the fact that they were quite pleased with their estimated attendance of 1,200, as being more than they expected. Somewhere along the line, they realized that attendance was going to be only about ten per cent of what they had originally planned - the plan that they had used to persuade council that this was a worthy investment of $15,000 (plus an equal amount of in-kind contributions). So each attendee was subsidized by more than ten dollars of tax dollars.
Now suppose that, in their first year, they had planned a smaller, one day event. Fewer acts would have decreased their costs, and they could have put some kind of identifier on the kind of music. Lower costs could have translated to a lower admission price - fifty dollars for a single day's admission translates to more than $100 for a couple - quite pricey if you're not sure of what's being offered. And don't worry about bringing people in from the lakes - focus on how to make the event more attractive to the people who are here. In that case, attracting a thousand people would be considered a success, and something to build on.
I understand that some of the people involved with the music festival resented my comments in the paper, which is unfortunate. I think that using that energy to identify what didn't work, and what they are going to try differently would be more productive than blaming the guy who asks the questions.
And remember, as long as you're looking to spend tax dollars, I'm going to be asking hard questions about it. That's my job.
"You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality." - Walt Disney