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Pride forced to scale back event due to debt load

Committee chair cites lack of community support

CHANGING PRIDE. Pride Chair Marion Steele says the festival has been forced to make changes. Credit: (Shawn Scallen)

There are some wholesale changes in store for Ottawa Pride, largely due to a lack of support from the Community.

This year’s annual festival has a new executive board, a new festival site and a new date, but the same old $120,000 debt.

August 27-28 is the date of the new festival. It was previously scheduled for July 9-10.

“It is the weekend before the Labor Day weekend, which is a true boon for us because now we get to advertise not only at Toronto Pride but Montreal Pride, and those are our two biggest draws,” says Marion Steele, newly elected chair of the Pride Committee Of Ottawa.

The festival will also be held in a new location, moving from its previous home along Bank Street to the city-run Festival Plaza.

“City Hall has given us Festival Plaza and so there is no street closure. There’s nothing to worry about; the air-conditioned rooms are there, the toilets are there, the electricity’s there, there’s no generators that need to be brought in,” Steele says. “It’s excellent.”

The loss of Bank St was unfortunate. But the committee was forced to make the move, says Steele. She blames lack of sponsorship, support and cooperation among the area’s businesses – including some queer-run vendors.

“What’s happened over the past four years is that businesses have proven that they will not support us. They’re more than happy to make money off of our backs, but they will not give back. And so as long as that is happening, whatever street it goes to, it needs to be a street where businesses can’t be doing that,” Steele says. “It will no longer be on the street because the community can’t afford to put it on the street anymore.”

To close a street in the city of Ottawa is “extremely expensive,” says Steele.

“You have to pay for the street closures, the parking meters’ losses, bus re-routes. You have to pay for the police security because they have to have ‘X’ number of police per capita, you know, so it is a very costly measure.”

Last year, a lot of the bars opened illegal beer gardens, Steele said, including those run by the Full House and CP.

“They were more than happy to make the money and pay the fine,” she said. “The support just isn’t there for this kind of event, so it can’t happen. I think that you have to have a community spirit on this, and a lot of businesses don’t have that.”

As well, Steele says the Big Shiny Ball has been scrapped in favour of “rebirthing” the Rainbow Party.

The Rainbow Party, which began during Pride Ottawa 1996, was last held as the kickoff to Ottawa Pride 2000. “Every year it was the opening night dance for the community, but Pride always controlled the bar. And that’s where the money was lost: Pride gave up control of its liquor licence and the income that you get from those kind of events is huge. And that’s what pays for your festival, so we are sort of taking that back.”

The committee will have “sponsoring bars” at the site of the Rainbow Party, but the festival will control the liquor license for the event.

“On Sat, Aug 27, we will have Rainbow Party VI and the following morning we will have the parade and the rest of the day will be the full Pride Day events, with stages and beer tents and the Kids Can and everything else,” Steele says.

Some details such as where the parade will start and finish, and where the Rainbow Party will take place are still to be finalized and committee members also continue to proactively deal with the festival’s staggering six-figure debt, which still stands at more than $120,000.

“We are a festival. We have a peak time of income. And that peak time is our festival. Until we get to the festival, we are just maintaining right now,” Steele explains. “We have the office rent to pay, the phones, the internet, and the website, too – so whatever fundraising we are doing now is just sustaining the operational component of everything.”

Steele says committee members have spoken to the bank that holds the $50,000 loan the city guaranteed last spring, as well as most of its more than 20 individual creditors. The committee has a three-year debt repayment plan.

“We’ll be pulling a creditors meeting together in early June and giving them our plan of debt repayment over the next three years. And it is a good plan and a very functional budget. It is very conservative, so that we don’t go a little overboard.”

As well, the city will be deciding whether or not to renew its guarantee on Pride’s bank loan sometime this month.

“We have made an agreement with the bank. They have seen our repayment plan and they are happy with it,” Steele says “And now we have to have the city continue to guarantee that.”

But while the board members are busy planning fundraisers and keeping Pride on track financially, its treasurer, Monique L’Heureux, recently resigned from her position under the crushing weight of dealing with the festival’s staggering debt load. L’Heureux, who continues to serve on the board remain, could not be reached for comment by Capital Xtra.

Because the committee’s previous record-keeping practices were “shoddy,” Steele says, “it’s overwhelming” to attempt to trace records and documents related to the festival’s finances.

Steele adds that L’Heureux also “had some health issues” that were exacerbated by the stress related to her position as Pride’s treasurer.

“We do have an accountant that is with us as well, but they are not willing to take on the whole job, though, which is understandable, who would want this job.”

As part of another new initiative begun by the Pride board, Steele says committee members have been reaching out to various organizations in the queer community, asking residents to share their ideas, suggestions and comments on how to improve the festival.

“We are going to each and every one of them and we are saying, ‘What would you like to do for Pride?'” she says.

In addition, a new section will soon be added to the festival’s website. “The Maypole” will allow feedback from community members regarding Pride’s future in Ottawa.

“I think that it is going to be really important to listen to what the community wants, and I don’t think that that has been done up until now, because without the community we wouldn’t have this,” Steele says.

“It’s not about the party and the pretty boys. We are a political organization – not the Pride festival per se – [but] just by who we are, we are political. The whole community. The movement has been very strong, and I think we need to get back some of that strength again.”