Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Borealis Music Festival - What Should Happen Next

The Borealis Music Festival was back on the council agenda for my first meeting back after holidays.  And not in a good way - the event lost so much money that Prince Albert Tourism, which was the entity that actually ran the festival, since they're already incorporated and thus were eligible for various grants, is now out of money, and needs $20,000 to make it to the end of the year.  Not only that, but various bills for the event haven't yet been paid, so they were asking for an additional loan of $80,000.  How they plan on repaying such a sizeable loan wasn't in the details that we were given, but we were told that it would be worked out later.  Considering the value of their financial planning so far, I think that it's safe to assume that the city wouldn't see that money again.

Let's put it into a bit of perspective.  The city has already given this event a $15,000 grant, even though they applied too late according to the rules.  We also provided an additional $15,000 in kind - largely in labour costs for set-up and site preparation.  Council did this based on a proposal and associated budget that even at the time seemed totally unrelated to reality - the projected attendance of 15,000 over three days, with half coming from local residents, apparently was conjured out of thin air.  Consider that the Edmonton Folk Festival attracts 25,000 - surely that should have factored into planning, but it wasn't.  And their other income, from T shirts, promotional items and beer sales, was also based on that 15,000 number.

Now we have decided to give them another $20,000 - that a total of $50,000 of tax payers' money.  They didn't get 15,000 attendees.  The reported attendance is less than 10% of that - 1,200.  The city subsidy per attendee is now $41.66, rather than the initial $2.  If we decide at some future point to add the additional $80,000, that brings the subsidy per attendee to $108.33.  That gets very difficult to defend to tax payers who may think that the city should spend based on the needs of many, not the entertainment desires of a minority.

Since the event happened, we've been getting information in dribs and drabs.  First we were told, right after the event, that they had adjusted their plans and the budget as the event got closer.  That's fine, but nobody told the city, which had made its decision based on the original plan, not on whatever the adjusted plan was.  We've since been told that they were counting on a chunk of funds from the Destination Marketing Board, which was funded through voluntary contributions from hotels, but the participation by hotels is far less than had been hoped, so that organization was already in the process of folding up shop - why would they be counted on to help pay the bills?

Prince Albert Tourism submitted a status quo budget for 2015, and although they mentioned plans for a music festival, they didn't include it as a line item in their budget.  If you're going to take on something of that size, that obviously has the potential to financially sink your organization, you should revise your budget first thing.  It's like buying a new car, but not adjusting your personal budget to account for the new payments - just asking for trouble.

I've had questions about this from the beginning (which another councillor deemed ridiculous), and I have even more now.  One of my key questions at Monday's meeting was about the actual numbers - we had none in front of us, and there was nobody from Tourism there - which speaks volumes about how complacent they were about getting bailed out of a problem that was entirely of their making.  I was told that the numbers had been presented at an in camera meeting the previous week.  This generated even more questions - this subject is not land, legal or labour (the only reasons that the Cities Act allows for not having something in the public portion of the meeting), so why weren't the numbers made public?  If we're just concerned about embarrassing some of the individuals involved, I don't think that's nearly as embarrassing to council as continuing to cover things up.

I also would like to know why Administration recommended the original proposal to council, instead of putting it under close scrutiny.  Where was their oversight?  I'm occasionally chided by other members of council when I question Administration, since they're supposed to be the professionals providing us with good advice.  This is why, and why more members of council should step forward with their questions - our responsibility is not to administrative staff, but to the tax payers.

So now we're getting a better understanding of the financial mess that the festival has left behind, how do we move forward?  First, we need to see the books, both for the Borealis Music Festival, and for Prince Albert Tourism.  It's like planning your financial future - first you have to know how big a mess you're in, and identify the mistakes that got you there.

Should the decision be made to go ahead, then the organizational team needs to be identified, with responsible and competent people in charge.  People with financial and promotional experience need to be in charge of various aspects of the event - it's not enough to hand it over to enthusiastic amateurs who have no idea how to organize the many aspects that go into making something like this a success.

Those who were involved have to identify where mistakes were made.  I would much rather have those involved say what they learned, and what they're going to change because it really didn't work as they thought it would, than hear that it was a great event, and that those few who were there had a really good time.  I'm always surprised by the defensive response when people extrapolate your questions to mean that you must hate Prince Albert, volunteers, music, the arts in general, small children and flowers.

I understand that many people worked very hard to bring this festival to Prince Albert.  I also understand that events that bring people into the city have the potential to improve the city both financially and in less easily measured ways.  However, my role as a councillor includes asking the hard questions to ensure that new events are successful, and can grow.  We need to balance opportunity with risk, and more people involved all the way along the line, from the organizers through the various levels of administration to council, need to ask these hard questions.

And part of that is open debriefing after events happen, so that you can fix mistakes and build on what worked.  That's what hasn't happened yet with the Borealis Music Festival, and it is what has to happen before council even considers providing assistance in future years.

"You can't change what you don't acknowledge." - Dr. Phil

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Post-Vacation Thoughts

Three weeks ago, Andrea and I were on a train, heading east for Toronto, for our annual trip to Ontario to remind our families what we look like.  As is our habit, we take the train both coming and going, to provide us with some forced relaxation on either side of what tends to become a hectic time of trying to visit family and friends in several different locations.  On the train, for most of the time, you're out of range of cell phone or internet, so your time is spent disconnected from the outside world, reading, napping, and talking with other passengers.  And eating, of course - the Via Rail chefs produce amazingly delicious meals, three times a day.

Once in Ontario, we spent the first weekend with Andrea's family, as five of the sisters, plus husbands and children, gathered near Magnetawan to celebrate the milestone birthday of one sister.  These birthday weekends feature much eating, drinking, laughing, and catching up on each other's lives - this one also featured a pumpkin beer tasting, a bonfire, and sparklers.  We then spent a few days in Fergus visiting my family, a couple of days in Niagara on the Lake, seeing two plays and visiting two wineries, Thanksgiving weekend in Millbrook with Andrea's youngest sister and her family, before a final couple of days in Toronto, having dinner with Andrea's only brother and his wife, plus another sister and her husband and son.  Then it was back on the train for the two day trip home, arriving back in Saskatoon only seven minutes behind schedule, on Thursday evening.

Even though it was vacation, I'm always keeping an eye out for how other communities handle the issues that every city has to deal with.  In Niagara on the Lake, for example, we had the chance to spend a couple of hours with a former Prince Albert businessman, Paul Moser, who told me that residents there are allowed to buy an annual parking pass for a set fee, so that they can park downtown without feeding the parking meter.  The parking meters are still there, of course, and the many, many tourists that flock there to tour wineries or take in a play or two at the Shaw Festival, provide parking revenues.  However, the local residents don't have the disincentive of having to dig out change for the meter whenever they go downtown, and the city gets parking revenue from two sources - from residents through the passes, and from the tourists through the meters.  These are the kind of options that I wish this city would explore, whenever we bemoan the lack of activity in the downtown area, while at the same time we hear that one of the reasons that people don't like coming downtown is because of the parking meters and the ever-vigilant ticketing people.

In Winnipeg, we had a few hours between arrival and departure, when we were able to wander about The Forks, the riverside area that has been developed with walking and biking paths, a children's museum, restaurants, and an indoor market.  We noticed that several white lawn and kitchen chairs with writing on them were scattered throughout the market.  When we looked closer, we saw that each chair had a suggestion written on it in black marker.  It turns out that Winnipeg has a website called ChairYourIdea, to which residents can submit ideas for improving the city - some of the ideas are then written on the chairs.  Some of the ideas are quite fanciful (I'm not sure how a Ferris wheel restaurant on the riverbank would work, although I'm sure the view would be great), some were more practical, like having a lending library for tools, that also provided seminars on simple home  repairs, which I think is a great idea, especially for lower income families.

Vacations are a great opportunity to get perspective.  While there are always lots of people in downtown Toronto, we also saw many empty storefronts, and more panhandlers and people sleeping on the street than I remember from past visits.  We also drove through downtown Hamilton on our way from Niagara on the Lake - there open stores seemed to be the exception, with many blocks appearing to be completely vacant.  Keeping downtowns vital is a problem no matter where you go.

While it's always great to see family and catch up with old friends, it's also great to come back home, and sleep in our own bed after three weeks of variable mattresses, and enjoy a good shower, after three weeks of variable water pressure.  And I'm looking forward to reconnecting with my council colleagues, on Tuesday this week, as we're taking Monday off to vote!

"The ant is knowing and wise, but he doesn't know enough to take a vacation." - Clarence Day