The Fine Arts Center (FAC) of Kershaw County wants the city to become lead sponsor of the Carolina Downhome Blues Festival, to the tune of $50,000 in hospitality tax (HTAX) funds. FAC Executive Director Kristen Cobb made the proposal to Camden City Council during its work session Tuesday afternoon. The Blues Festival is held each year during the first weekend in October.
Citing declining sales for ticketed events at the festival as well as appealing to the city’s new focus on tourism promotion, Cobb said the sponsorship would allow organizers to make all the festival’s events free to the public.
Cobb said 57 percent of the 3,000 people attending the 2013 Blues Festival came from either outside the county or outside South Carolina, representing 35 of the country’s 50 states. Despite good attendance, sales for ticketed events at the festival have dropped while non-ticketed audience numbers have increased sharply, she said.
“The (goal) has always been … to place a unique forum of musical entertainment in downtown venues to draw in tourists as well as locals to stimulate business and cash revenue,” Cobb said.
She said having the city become the festival’s lead sponsor would be a “win-win-win-win” scenario.
“The first win is for the city. The city will have an established event with statewide and national recognition as it launches its new brand and tourism campaign,” Cobb said.
She said most small towns promote themselves through the arts, retail businesses, dining and hotels.
“And Camden has all of it. This new partnership will establish the city by recognizing the validity of this type of industry and how it changes the landscape in our community,” Cobb said.
The win for the hospitality industry, she said, comes from “the needed boost” from tourism revenue, allowing restaurants to continue offering quality daily dining experiences for the community. She added that, despite the slow economy, most restaurateurs would say that weekends such as the Blues Festival add that needed boost.
“I would argue that these businesses,” Cobb said of both retail and dining establishments, “are the backbone of this downtown, and they help make Camden the special place that it is. The win here for them is we show them that we support their untiring efforts to sustain viable, successful businesses. Without them, there’s no taxes to even collect.”
In the same vein, Cobb said without Camden’s hotels, there would be no place “for people to rest their heads.” She said occupancy numbers would show that area hotels have been packed to capacity on Blues Festival weekends. She argued those numbers -- both in terms of people and the dollars spent -- would increase if all festival events were free.
Cobb also acknowledged that the partnership would be a win for the FAC.
“That’s because we get to do what we love doing, and that’s being a cultural hub for the city and this county, providing joy through entertainment, being an economic stimulus, and bringing people together,” Cobb said. “So let’s do this together. Let’s show the spirit of cooperation. Let’s offer the ‘Camden: Classically Carolina Downhome Blues Festival.’”
Council appeared to approach the proposal cautiously. Mayor Tony Scully asked Cobb why she felt the festival would be more successful if all events were free.
“I think the changing dynamics of downtown, the use of the Town Green, use of downtown’s free space -- we can keep people moving all around downtown -- we are unable to police that from a ticketing standpoint. If we can use the hospitality tax to leverage that added revenue coming in … this would be a ledge to give the festival an opportunity to get to the next level,” Cobb said.
She likened the investment to a “gift” to the community -- an opportunity for the city to recognize the FAC’s contribution to the city in order to bring as many people in as possible into its restaurants, hotels and businesses.
Cobb said the FAC has had trouble tracking ticketed vs. non-ticketed festival-goers, with participating venues complaining that people without armbands marking them as paid ticket holders were mixing with those who had the armbands. She said the problem was worse in 2013 than in previous years. Cobb said the FAC has earned upwards of $20,000 each from previous Blues Festivals.
In her proposal, Cobb listed the city’s potential $50,000 sponsorship first and then “secondary” corporate sponsorships at only a total of $4,000.
“If you’re going to go to free tickets, I don’t want to see the city sponsoring the entire event,” Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford said.
Cobb acknowledged that the FAC is seeking lower sponsorships than in previous years, but will continue to pursue more. She also said the county is supplying $10,500 in accommodation tax funds as well. Even so, Cobb said, the city would benefit from the city’s lead sponsorship of the festival.
“The majority of the businesses … that are going to gain the most are in the downtown area,” she said.
Cobb and Councilwoman Laurie Parks noted that the county cannot offer more money for the Blues Festival because it does not have an HTAX fund from which to draw.
“That could be a problem,” Parks said. “They are one of three counties in the entire state (that don’t have an HTAX) and this is just one more argument that they should look into this.”
Parks also asked about the festival running into competing events, such as University of South Carolina (USC) football on the first weekend in October. City Manager Mel Pearson noted that the York County Blues & Jazz Festival is also held on the first weekend of October. Cobb said the FAC may be willing to work with the city to schedule the festival for the following weekend. She said she thought that is a weekend the USC football team is off while Clemson has an away game.
Scully noted that many other festival have national sponsorships. Even then, he said, one particular festival with large corporate sponsors still charges $70 for tickets. The mayor suggested that the FAC may want to form an advisory committee to help it explore sponsorship ideas.
“I think we have to be realistic about making comparisons,” Cobb said of other cities and festivals. “(But) I want to get the reaction from the city for you to be the lead sponsor this year and … let (businesses see) that the city gets it.”
Cobb said she thought corporations will follow if the city helps make the Blues Festival a large, successful event.
Cobb estimated the festival’s total economic impact to the city and county at nearly $640,000.
Councilman Walter Long acknowledged that the FAC and the Blues Festival qualify for HTAX funds and felt the city should assist. However, he expressed concern that organizers would continue to ask for more money in the future.
“Your expenses are only going to go up. These expenses never go down,” he said.
Cobb said organizers are considering reducing the festival from a three-day to a two-day event. However, she continued to suggest that the city helping to make the festival succeed will, ultimately, drive more traffic into downtown Camden on whatever weekend it is held, thereby helping local businesses make more money. That, she said, would generate even more hospitality taxes.
Drakeford, however, said the city could have to cut HTAX funding from other recipients in order to accommodate the FAC’s request. Later in the evening, council voted unanimously on first reading of the city’s budget, which already includes HTAX allocations.
In response to another comment and question from Mayor Scully, Cobb said she believes people come to the festival not just for the music as a whole, but for artists who participate.
“We always do try to get a couple of big name performers. That is part of what we try to do, and then there are people who like to hear the Blues who like to go into a small restaurant. They get to see the bands playing up close,” Cobb said.
Scully said he has noted that some festivals offer a mix of musical genres and wondered if an advisory committee would be helpful in coming up with new ideas. He also suggested that instead of offering all events for free, the FAC could partner with the owner of a building with a large space inside to offer a premiere, ticketed event.
Cobb, however, pointed out that the top draw for the 2013 Jazz at the Center Musical Festival -- a ticketed event -- only drew 75 to 80 people. She said that did not even generate enough revenue to pay the performer.
Drakeford said she thinks the FAC needs to try again to increase corporate sponsors’ contributions.
“The majority of it is on the city and I was thinking that some of the corporate sponsors -- try to get more funding from them and that way this won’t look so scary (to the city) as it does right now,” Drakeford said.
Cobb replied by reiterating what she feels is the benefit to Camden to sponsor the festival.
“Maybe that’s what these businesses need to see,” she said. “Maybe they need to say, ‘The city stepped up. The city is the lead sponsor of this … to make sure that we can continue to drive people into downtown, so now it’s our turn to step up.’”
In other business during the work session:
• Camden Fire Department (CFD) Chief John Bowers updated council on the department’s recent smoke detector blitz in the Kirkwood community. Out of 140 homes, the CFD reached 74, and is continuing to make contact. Bowers said the CFD installed 188 smoke alarms, all with 10-year lithium batteries, as well as a number of carbon monoxide detectors.
• Pearson presented an annual drinking water quality report to council. The report has moved online, saving the city some $2,900 in postage. Long noted that the report did not state in plain language that the city’s drinking water is safe. The report can be viewed by going to the city’s website (www.cityofcamden.org), hovering over the Residents tab and clicking on Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) near the bottom of the menu.
• Council met in executive session to discuss an unspecified contractual matter.
In addition to voting on the budget, council’s regular meeting included a presentation by United Way of Kershaw County (UWKC) Executive Director Donny Supplee on the agency’s housing efforts. The city is including $20,000 in its budget toward supporting UWKC’s housing program.
Supplee said Habitat for Humanity of Kershaw County is now a UWKC partner agency, with the United Way providing $2,000 worth of support per house. Supplee said it has also added a pool of funds to encourage Habitat and other volunteer groups in home repairs for low-income homeowners.
Additionally, Supplee reported that the UWKC and its partners completed 38 home repairs, with Grace Episcopal Church being a new partner, completing five homes, with Christian Community Ministries providing the funding.
Supplee also said New Day on Mill provided 11 homeless families with a home in 2013 and has added another house for family sheltering on Fair Street behind Lyttleton Street United Methodist Church. In addition, a new men’s shelter is open on Fair Street behind Camden City Hall. Additionally, he said the UWKC is working with the Housing Authority in Columbia to secure Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers to assist veterans with housing matters.
Supplee also presented the UWKC Anne Dallas Award to CFD Deputy Chief Phil Elliott for his work with the Camden-Kershaw County Rescue Squad.
In other business during the regular meeting, council unanimously:
• proclaimed May as National Historic Preservation Month;
• proclaimed May 17 as Teen Pregnancy Prevention Day;
• proclaimed May 22 as Free Clinic Awareness Day;
• resolved to affirm its position on safety for employees, property and the public;
• approved a façade grant for a property on Little Street;
• tabled the appointment of Jacqueline Green-Stuckey to the Price House Commission due to a technical issue;
• appointed Mary Foster Cox to the Camden Historic Landmarks Commisson; and
• reappointed Mark Houde to the Camden Municipal Election Commission.