on Festivals

Last week, New Westminster City Council moved to approve providing funding and a guaranteed date for the Uptown Live music event, scheduled for July, 2016. The decision was not without some controversy, so I thought it apropos to outline my thinking on this file.

**Obligatory caveat: Obviously, I voted with the majority of Council on this (although not on the amendment to the motion), but can only speak to my personal motivation and decision making. Nothing I write here should be construed to represent the “official opinion of the City” (whatever that is), or the thoughts of any other member of Council, as there is a diversity of opinions on this topic.**

The City has a Festivals Grant system, through which we last year awarded a little over $178,000 to 10 different organizations to put on 12 events, plus some funding for the design and construction of the Parade Float. Two of the events did not take place for different reasons, meaning $37,000 of that money did not get spent.

Several of the event organizers expressed an interest in developing multi-year sponsor agreements, as they felt that relying on a year-by-year grant process did not provide them the security they needed to make their commitments to sponsors, and created some logistical issues around long-term planning necessary for larger events. So last year, Council agreed to change the process somewhat so organizations can apply for up to three years of funding, guaranteed on the condition that the event needs to demonstrably provide value for the community each year.

Eight of the 2015 events included this three-year guarantee, meaning that $128,000 of the 2016 budget is already committed. Note, however, that Uptown Live was one of those events, and as that event did not occur in 2015, that three-year deal needs to be re-started, so really only $112,000 is committed.

The 2015 Festival Grant budget, with 2016 commitments. (the italicized lines are the events that did not take place in 2015, so those funds were not spent in 2015, and the commitment for 2016 does not strictly apply)

By looking at the plan for 2016 Uptown Live, I had no problem with the grant request. It is an event on scale with the other very large regional-draw events in town (the Hyack Parade, the Pride Street Fair, StrEAT Food) and the uptown BIA provided a three-year plan that saw their funding request going down over the term as more sponsors come on board. I’m willing, based on the success of their previous incarnations, to take a risk to invest in something that has the potential to be as big as Khatsahlano or any other large, free, one-day festivals in the region.

One of the reasons Uptown Live did not occur last year (after two successful years) is because they were not able to have their event on the third weekend in July. The Uptown BIA saw this date a crucial because they, as a newcomer, cannot compete for talent or stages and equipment with other large regional events like Khatsahlano, the Folk Festival, or Squamish. However, this is the same weekend (though not the same day) that the West End Business Association has been holding the 12th Street Music Festival for the last three years. Hence, the potential for conflict.

My thought on the date conflict is actually pretty simple: I don’t think Council should be picking weekends for specific festivals. As long as our engineering crews and police can accommodate the events (that is what the “in kind” part of the City’s contribution represents), then Council should not be limiting a festival organizer from holding an event to entertain our residents, promote our businesses, and make our City more fun and active, on the day they figure they are best able to do that.

Obviously, if there is construction or something going on that prevents a Festival from working, or if there is no perceived ROI for the City of an event, then Council has the ability to deny approval for it. We also have the freedom to contribute financially or not to any given event, and have a Festival Grant Committee to provide us advice towards how we allocate that funding. However, programming the weekends of the summer is something that, in my opinion, is best done by festival organizers, not Councillors.

Last year, Council approved two different festivals that partially overlapped with other existing events. The very successful Multicultural Festival at Pier Park by the New Westminster Philippine Festival Society was run on the same day as the City’s own Canada Day events at Queens Park. The regionally-coordinated Fraser Fest had its New Westminster stop the day before Riverfest started. In both of these cases, the two organizations were supported (even encouraged) by New West Council, and they worked together to coordinate their events, even sharing stage space in the case of Fraser Fest and Riverfest.

Obviously, if two festival organizers decide to hold their event on the same day, in the same place, then there will need to be some criteria for staff or Council to determine who gets to hold their event. We could implement a “first come first served” rule, evaluate the ROI for the City of each event, or some other method. Since there is no policy in place now to guide how these decisions are made, staff would likely bring a conflict like this to Council. Without a guiding policy, I have no idea how Council will resolve the conflict, and I hope the ROI for the City would rule in our decision making. but there is no guarantee of that.

This is not the case for the Third Week in July, though. At this point, Council has approved both the 12th Street Music Fest for 2016 (as they applied for a three-year commitment last year) and Uptown Live. They are in different locations on different dates, and staff feel that sufficient resources exist from an engineering and police service level to support them both. How the two organizations compete or work together are up to them. The organizers of Uptown Live have suggested that a partnership could have benefits for both organizations. And I hope that’s how it comes to pass.

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