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Pride far from alone in financial woes

Festival board will ask city for large grant

YEAR OF PLATINUM. Mayor Bob Chiarelli and Councillor Diane Holmes helped Darren Fisher cut the cake marking the 20th anniversary of Pride in Ottawa on Apr 5. Will council be there for Ottawa's queer c Credit: Pat Croteau

While the Ottawa-Gatineau Pride Committee shoulders a $178,211 debt and lurches toward their sponsorship deadline and an uncertain future, a city of Ottawa committee has suggested bailing out the financially imperilled Canadian Tulip Festival and Festival Franco-Ontarien, to the combined tune of $125,000.

“The Tulip Festival and Franco-Ontarien are in particularly critical emergencies for different reasons,” says Colleen Hendrick, director of the city’s Cultural Services And Community Funding branch.

Staff reports prepared for the city’s Corporate Services And Economic Development Committee (CSEDC) recommend city hall give the tulip festival a $75,000 emergency grant and the Festival Franco-Ontarien a $50,00 grant. The committee approved the grants Apr 4, and forwarded the matter to city council for a final decision.

The Tulip Festival has incurred deficits for four years, including last year’s deficit of $30,657. It owes $104,267 to creditors for 2003, and $240,000 to creditors for 2005. Its debts include $32,613 for OC Transpo shuttle bus service, which the committee wants the city to forgive. The one-time emergency grant could also help appease the festival’s other creditors.

The CSEDC also recommends giving a $50,000 emergency grant to the Festival Franco-Ontarien, which declared bankruptcy in early January and has been resurrected as a non-profit corporation with a largely new board.

The Festival Franco-Ontarien has been fighting to survive since last summer, when its board of directors discovered that $380,000 was missing from their coffers, $280,000 of which was owed to creditors. In early January, the festival officially proceeded with legal action against Cobalt Events, the private firm that managed the 2005 festival.

Julian Armour, president of the Festival Network – a coalition of local festivals – thinks Pride should approach the city to ask for the same deal as the Tulip Festival and the Festival Franco-Ontarien.

“I think that they should certainly consider discussing it,” Armour says. “I mean, it’s a precedent that they should be looking at.”

Historically, city hall has underfunded Pride. The city gave the Pride committee a grant of $4,000 in 2002 and $3,000 in 2003, but nothing in 2004. In comparison, other festivals routinely rack up grants in the tens of thousands of dollars. Interestingly, other major Canadian and US cities routinely grant their Pride festivals tens of thousands of dollars.

When asked if the Pride Festival should also get a one-time emergency grant and if festivals should generally get more municipal funding, Hendrick says, “I think there are issues of sustainability for festivals.

“That’s quite evident in terms of the Tulip Festival and Franco-Ontarien,” Hendrick adds. “And $626,000 today is being used to support 24 festival organizations. We need to look at what level of city funding should be provided for festivals.”

An Apr 3 city memo breaks down how much each festival is in arrears to the city by the end of 2005. The Pride festival looks good in comparison to others.

The Canadian Tulip Festival owes $32,614, cumulatively; the Festival Franco-Ontarien, $2,345; Pride Festival, $16,516; the Cisco Systems Bluesfest, $41,438; and the Canadian Urban Music Festival, $4,432.

Darren Fisher, co-chair of the Pride Committee, says that it is common for festival organizers to approach the city, hat in hand, sooner or later.

“Every festival that has been in trouble with the city has tried to negotiate with the city, and it puts them in a weird spot,” Fisher says. “They’re probably the one creditor that’s common to every festival, which means that if they do it for one, it really has a large impact.”

Hendrick notes that Pride is eligible for city funding this year, despite having a deficit and owing creditors money.

“They can’t use city funds to address their past deficits,” Hendrick says. “It has to go to their program. They need a financial plan to deal with a deficit just like any organization would.”

Fisher wants to see city hall take a different approach to the grants. In the past, city hall has given grants for the cultural components of the Pride festival, but then billed the festival for the much larger cost of services such as road closure, policing and garbage cleanup. Fisher has an alternative. He wants city hall to stop billing for those services and continue to provide grants for the cultural aspects of the Pride festivities and all festivals.

The city should “help us showcase our culture. The grant should be to help develop that culture.”

A new approach to festival funding is needed at city hall, Armour adds, one that recognizes the importance of festivals to the quality of life in Ottawa and to local businesses. Municipal funding has to increase, he says.

“In our organization [the Ottawa Chamber Music Society], the city of Ottawa funding is about five percent of our total budget, but it creates a buffer of stability. If we can get that up, then we attract all of this other funding. We want a stable industry. As long we’re cutting it this close, you’re always going to see, every year, a couple of organizations accumulating a pretty big debt.”

The city might be starting to listen, although the response could be just another bureaucratic layer. Hendrick says city hall might set up an arts investment steering committee.

“The intent is to look at those issues of sustainability for arts and festival organizations. If the terms of reference get approved by council, we’ll be starting with the steering committee at the end of April.”