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Scaring up support

Halloweek makes do with less money, not enough volunteers

FRIGHTFUl. Last year Halloweek participants had to fight their way up and down Church St, prompting an extended street closure this year. Credit: Nicola Betts

This month will  see the return of Halloweek, a weeklong program of Halloween-themed events taking place in the gaybourhood in honour of the homo high holiday. But with funding for the festivities down from last year creative producer David Wootton says he’s had his work cut out for him.

“I’ve been working on Halloweek since May,” says Wootton, who is the coordinator of the Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area (CWVBIA), adding that although there isn’t as much money for the fest this year the offerings have been expanded from three events to seven including a family-friendly Village Fair and Fete presented by the 519 Community Centre.

Fright night has been celebrated on Church St for decades, but last year CWVBIA expanded the offerings to a weeklong celebration in the hopes of drawing more tourists to Toronto, with partial funding coming from Tourism Toronto. Last year a three-year agreement was struck that saw Tourism Toronto provide funding to kickstart the festival, with diminishing amounts each year.

“I know this is the second year we’ve been supporting it,” says Tourism Toronto’s vice president of communications Andrew Weir, though he wouldn’t confirm whether there was a three-year agreement in place. “We helped launch Halloweek last year in partnership with the BIA…. We continue to see it as a story we’ll be promoting in the years ahead.”

Last year Tourism Toronto contributed $50,000 on a total budget  of $75,000, with $25,000 coming from CWVBIA. Wootton wouldn’t provide details of this year’s Halloweek budget, but says half of the funds provided by Tourism Toronto must be used for promotion and advertising, “leaving very little for the execution of the event itself.”

“We haven’t had a lot of interest in corporate sponsorship,” he adds. “Companies like Labatt’s and Red Bull are waiting to see how our second year goes. So with a third of what we had to work with last year we still have to create an  electrifying event.”

Although on the one hand the lack of corporate sponsorship has made it difficult to pull the festival together (“It’s been hell,” says Wootton. “I’ve really had to manage the budget well and pull things out of my ass”) he notes that the upside is that the week will have more of a community feel. “We haven’t got branding  all over everything ’cause we all know what that looks like, even though you need the branding  to do events.”

Wootton’s solution to budgeting concerns has been to involve more of the local businesses in the festival.

“I thought I’d bring the village itself more into the event,” he says. “All the prizes are coming from the village and all the events are held within it. The Village Fair, for example, is a day of activities put on by The 519.”

While the City of Toronto is offering goods and services, including providing recycling bins and waiving the park permit fee for the Village Fair and Fete, it has not provided any direct financial support to the fledgling festival, and is charging CWVBIA for the street closure.

“All our money is going into closing the street and putting the stage in,” says Wootton, adding that with the stage costs running at close to $25,000 and the street closure costing $13,000, there’s little funding left over for the other six events taking place over the course of the week.

No one from the City responded to queries by press time about why it is charging for the street closure. In the past Church St was shut down not because of a permit  but because the sheer number of people on the street made it necessary for safety reasons.

“The street closure is somewhat a gift for a lack of words, back to the community through the CWVBIA,” says Wootton. “It allows for a safe and coordinated environment for people to experience Halloween on Church St. I suppose that the BIA could just allow the street to be shut down by the police but that could be misleading as [though the CWVBIA was] not interested or providing for the means of the community.”

This Halloween the street closure will extend further north than last year. In total four blocks of Church St will be closed to traffic, between Alexander and Gloucester, with Wellesley remaining open to traffic.

The entertainment stage will also move further north on Church St — to the Beer Store parking lot above Wellesley from its previous spot at Maitland — in an attempt to alleviate the crowding problems that brought the party to a near standstill last Halloween.

“Last year there was a problem with congestion so local merchants asked for the stage to be moved further north,” says Wooton.

To keep things lively Wootton  has added a DJ area to the south end  of Church St “so we have more of  a spread of activities. I’ve also asked Complexions School of Makeup  to do some zombie makeup.  So the real show is on the street.”

Wootton says there’s also been a shortage of volunteers to help set up and run its events. In addition to Halloweek, CWVBIA presents the Church Street Fetish Fair in August and the gaybourhood’s contribution to Nuit Blanche.

“We’ve had very little participation from volunteers, which I can understand. No one wants to give up their Halloween or their Nuit Blanche night. But with the rising costs and lack of bodies we’re going to have to rethink some  of the events for next year,” says Wootton, adding that there are  no plans to cancel popular the Church Street Fetish Fair.

In particular Wootton is looking for volunteers for the Village Fair  on Fri, Oct 25 and Hallloween night itself. “Set up and take down is especially what we need,” says Wootton, adding that he’s also looking for a handful of volunteers to help distribute the skull wands that will identify attendees invited to participate in the costume  contest on Halloween night.

Wootton adds volunteering isn’t the only way folks can show support. “We need the community to come out. For there to be bodies in the park to show there’s actually an event there.”

He says he would have rather seen this year’s Halloweek compressed into a Halloweekend but that Tourism Toronto blocked the change.

“For people to make an overnight trip to choose Toronto as  a destination for some entertainment, as we hope they’ll do, critical mass is important,” says Weir. “One day or two days may not be enough to draw them but a week of activity…. Generally speaking we find events that run a little longer tend to be a greater draw.”

Although Weir declined to say whether Tourism Toronto would have provided funding had the fest been cut short he says, in the end, it’s the CWVBIA’s event.

“It’s not for me to say what’s going to happen with it next year,” says Weir. “We’ve been at this for a while and we’re anxious to see how the results look at the end, as we always do, in partnership with the BIA.”

Next year Wooton says he’s determined to go back to basics, perhaps even doing away with the stage entirely.

“I’d like to make Church St itself the stage, with increased lighting effects for the street,” he says. “I’d like less setup and more technology.”

Despite the difficulties Wootton expects a good turnout especially with this year’s Halloween falling on a Friday night. “Last year we had about 45,000 over the course of the [Wednessday] evening and we’re anticipating that again if the weather holds out. Let’s hope it’s a beautiful crisp autumn night with no rain.”