Budget Cuts, COVID-19 Could Move Festival International To Youngsville In 2021
Can you imagine Festival International anywhere BUT Downtown Lafayette?
Yeah, me neither. It actually sounds weird even saying it but the reality is, Festival could be forced to explore alternative venues in 2021 due to the one-two punch of costs and COVID. It's a rumored concept that I've heard in passing but as south Louisiana continues to navigate restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, that concept is something that Festival organizers have discussed, according to a new report from The Current.
As you can imagine, these situations aren't realistic to navigate with emotion so let's look at the numbers. You can deep dive here via the Current for specific figures but the gist is that Festival has seen a recent downturn in sponsorships over recent years after the oil bust crushed some of their bigger donation dollars.
Add that to the fact that Mayor-President Josh Guillory recently cut LCG's contribution to Festival—a campaign promise to "reduce public spending to non-essential programs" that he followed through on with "severe cuts" to the arts in the first adopted budget.
Beyond any direct monetary contributions, our local government has also maintained in-kind contributions like police detail and other services since the inception of Festival back in 1987. See more on the dollars and cents here, but we're talking roughly $200,000 per year total when all is said and done—so basically, less money = less fest.
Speaking of less fest, Festival organizers have found ways to trim stages and get clever with their budget in the wake of downturned sponsorships while still delivering a massive economic impact of $40 million to our city.
One thing that is very tough to measure is the unwritten positive impact that Festival has on businesses in the downtown Lafayette area; especially this year with restaurants and bars bearing the brunt of our efforts to keep COVID under control. Sure things are better than they were at the beginning of all of this, but sales aren't nearly what they were before the industry was blindsided back in March.
Speaking of the coronavirus, that brings up another major issue that Festival has to tackle: Logistics.
As you can imagine, travel isn't easy during a pandemic—especially "international" travel, which is obviously necessary when it is literally the essence of the annual celebration. Oh, and did I mention we are literally five months out?
Beyond the hurdles of getting the artists here, Festival draws roughly 400,000 people per year so social distancing is definitely tricky; especially when it's nearly impossible to forecast what the numbers will look like. Numbers are beginning to spike again, and while recent developments have us hopeful for a vaccine the earliest we're looking at getting it would be mid to late Spring 2021.
Long story short, Festival's got some super tough challenges ahead and even tougher decisions to make. Executive Director Scott Feehan told The Current that he and his staff have been exploring a range of options.
One end is Festival in all its glory. The other end is no Festival, with a virtual Festival in between. We’ve been doing our due diligence. In that spectrum, we’ve looked at outside of Downtown. One of the potential venues is Youngsville, among others.
Making a move out of downtown could afford Festival the opportunity to explore "pods" or some of the other alternatives that we've seen in the live events world during COVID-19. Earlier today I read an article that described how live event companies like Ticketmaster and Live Nation are rolling out plans that will allow concertgoers to use their smartphones to verify their vaccine status.
While there is nothing in stone, Feehan tells The Current he has met with Mayor-President Josh Guillory and Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter to float the idea of "a move or expansion to Youngsville." I reached out to Mayor Ritter who told me he's only spoken "conceptually" with Festival but he would welcome any opportunity to work with their team on hosting the event.
Youngsville has a fond appreciation for parks and rec, quality of life initiatives, and events such as our Mardi Gras and Independence Day celebrations, or the thousands of annual visitors from around the world that visit the Youngsville Sports Complex and drive economic development. I know that Festival would fit right in.
So the next obvious question is while exploring a move to a green space like Youngsville would allow Festival more breathing room (literally and figuratively) would it still be "Festival" as we know it?
It's tough for me to even utter an authentic half-hearted "yes" given the fact that the entire Festival brand is basically engrained into the framework of Downtown Lafayette. I reached out to Downtown Development Authority CEO Anita Begnaud who agreed that Festival and Downtown were "inextricable" but even more so she stressed how devastating a move would be for the business owners in the area.
Like I mentioned earlier, these are some of the hardest-hit businesses due to lack of activity and gathering due to the coronavirus pandemic. As a DJ who hasn't stepped foot into a gig at a downtown venue since March, I can relate.
I don’t think it’s any secret that Festival International is a central part of why businesses choose to locate Downtown. It is an incredible economic driver for Downtown Lafayette and frankly all of Lafayette. Downtown is the ecosystem of Festival. A concert in a field in Youngsville or any other location is not Festival.
I feel like Festival and Downtown are like that couple you know who are obviously going through some tough times, but also know they are simply better together. It's also worth mentioning that Downtown has been resilient in the face of COVID-19, adding 20 new businesses in a year that you would expect to see that number in the opposite direction.
Then there is that unmeasurable impact that I mentioned earlier. You know, that magic you feel at Festival while surrounded by the backdrop of "the city." I know people who have literally MOVED here after spending Festival week in Downtown Lafayette.
Regardless of Festival's ultimate decision, I think it's time for us to step up as a community to protect one of our most important cultural and tourism assets. Is it time to make Festival a hybrid event where part of it remains free while other acts are ticketed in venues in the area? How do we expand it? One thing I suggested to both Downtown and Youngsville leadership was the idea of TWO festivals or events from the Festival International organizers.
While I know it's a concept that's easier said than done, the idea was very well received.
With recent budget cuts and looming uncertainty in the wake of this pandemic, Festival could easily collab with a partner like the city of Youngsville on a new event concept based on food, culture, and live music. You could keep the tradition of Festival International in Downtown Lafayette for the spring and create a new space for a possible Youngsville (or any large green space) in the fall. This is something that Festival organizers could start working on today regardless of what the latter part of 2021 may look like in relation to COVID-19.
Again, I'm literally throwing ideas at the wall here, but Festival is facing a very realistic tough situation right now; and while there really isn't a silver bullet or any such thing as a perfect scenario, something has to happen.
See the full story via the Current here and sound off with your thoughts in the comments.