No reason to celebrate: Festivals rethink, cancel

For the first time in more than 20 years, the organizers of the Harbor Fest musical festival in Racine, Wis., were forced to cancel their seminal summertime event on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Sure, attendance has dwindled in recent years, but rising costs and a 40 percent drop in corporate sponsorship dealt the final blow. “It boiled down to, if we can't do it the right way, let's just not do it,” said Joe Mooney, the event's organizer for all but one year.

Mooney's misery has company. From a hot air balloon festival in Jackson, Mich., to parades in Clearwater, Fla., to a seafood festival in Annapolis, Md., organizers grappling with the effects of a weakening economy are calling it quits. Or at least putting off their events until next year.

Corporate sponsors are pulling out as they worry about their own financial well-being, let alone donating money to a festival. Organizers are reluctant to raise ticket prices since families shelling out $4-a-gallon for gas may not want to pay the extra money. And costs for hiring bands, vendors and renting grounds are rising.

There are tens of thousands of festivals and parades across the country each year, ranging from events with a few balloons and a tent to those with rides, musicians and acres of vendors. Summer is the peak season, said Ira Rosen, the North American director of the International Festivals and Events Association.

The economic impact is big, with festivals generating hundreds of millions of dollars for organizers, many of which are nonprofit and donate proceeds to charities. They also boost local businesses, including hotels, restaurants and retailers. As many as 80 percent break even each year, Rosen said.

This year, festivals are weighing their options and studying the impact of tough decisions like raising prices. It's unclear how many have decided to cancel or delay their events for a year, though attendance so far has been flat, Rosen said.

A number have opted to remain free but request donations to help cover costs.

Problem is, not everyone is willing to pay. Donations didn't generate enough cash this year for the Sarasota Arts Day festival, and it lost so much money that organizers decided to shelve next year's event.

The festival, which normally draws about 25,000 people to downtown Sarasota, Fla., during a weekend in January, doesn't charge attendees but suggests they make contributions. Those dropped by half to just over $15,000 from last year, and the fair lost $30,000, said Martine Meredith Collier, executive director of the Sarasota County Arts Council, which organizes the fair. The year before, it lost $3,700.

“You can't keep doing that and stay in business,” Collier said.

This year would have marked the 42nd anniversary for the Maryland Seafood Festival, which draws about 20,000 people over a weekend each September.

Organizers lost a major corporate sponsor, Capital Gazette Newspapers, which publishes the local paper The Capital.

Now they're working on planning the 2009 event. But even that's not certain.

“I see no reason why we would not be back next year,” Burdon said. “Unless something drastically happens and the economy goes even more south.”

Some people are putting up a fight. Les Johns didn't want to let the parade held each summer in the Milwaukee neighborhood of Bay View die out due to lack of corporate sponsors.

He and other members of the Bay View Lions Club sent letters, made calls and did anything they could to save the parade. A car dealership eventually agreed to pay the $20,000 it takes to put on the parade. So it'll go on as planned on Saturday.