City approves portion of funding request for Free State Festival; future uncertain

The future of the Free State Festival was pushed into uncertainty Tuesday after the City Commission voted to contribute $60,000 for the weeklong summer arts event — $40,000 less than the Lawrence Arts Center requested.

The Arts Center asked for $100,000 of the city’s transient guest tax revenue, which would provide 25 percent of the event’s funding.

The commission voted to provide $30,000 in transient guest tax funds along with $30,000 already allocated to Lawrence’s convention and visitors bureau, eXplore Lawrence, for the purpose of supporting the event.

Lawrence Arts Center CEO Susan Tate said in an Aug. 10 letter to the City Commission that if funding weren’t approved, the festival would be canceled.

“We may decide that we can move forward with $60,000 for the Free State Festival,” Tate said after Tuesday’s vote. “We could not have gone forward with no commitment. We will be working on our budget. We will try to get more done with less.”

The commission voted unanimously to allocate $60,000, but commissioners were evenly split in discussion. Commissioner Matthew Herbert and Mayor Mike Amyx asked that the commission vote to provide the full request, while commissioners Leslie Soden and Stuart Boley expressed concern about draining the city’s transient guest tax fund, which is collected through a special sales tax charged on hotel rooms.

According to a letter sent to the commission from Tate, approximately 18 percent of the 20,000 people who attended the event in 2015 were from outside Douglas County. Megan Gilliland, the city’s communication manager, said later in the meeting that the city “did not get a lot of notifications” that festival attendees were booking hotel rooms.

“I don’t think $100,000 is sustainable,” Boley said. “I’m not saying it’s not worth doing. I think it’s a great thing, we just have limitations.”

Herbert said the commission should better prioritize how it uses the transient guest tax fund, which has been used for downtown beautification and other projects to draw more visitors to the community.

“For me, it’s a sense of priorities. If we’re using TGT [transient guest tax] to plant flowers downtown, are you willing to say this is less valuable than a bed of mums?” Herbert said. “I hope next year we can all sit around and look at our reserve fund number and be grateful it’s such a big number. At least we’ll have mums.”

The city contributed $60,000 to the Free State Festival in 2015 and $20,000 in 2014, the festival’s first year.

The increase in funds requested from the city comes from a loss in grant funding coupled with plans to make the Free State Festival more of a showcase than it’s been in its first two years, Tate said.

The overall budget for the 2016 Free State Festival is $400,500. The 2015 festival cost slightly more than $340,000, and about $207,000 was spent in 2014.

According to budgets provided by the Arts Center, it’s seeking to spend $127,000 on fees for musicians and other artists next year — about $42,000 more than what was spent on fees in 2015 and $80,000 more than in 2014.

Organizers are also planning to use more funds for personnel, travel and lodging, production and equipment rental, marketing, concessions and special events.

Tate said in her letter that $20,000 from the city of Lawrence contributions would go toward marketing, $50,000 would be used to pay musicians’ fees and $30,000 would be allocated for outdoor production costs.

Other funds to operate the event are coming from sponsors, as well as revenue from tickets, merchandise and concessions.

Sarah Bishop, who runs the Free State Festival, said after the vote Tuesday that the Arts Center would decide soon whether plans for the event would continue.

In its first two years, the Lawrence Arts Center used $75,000 in grant money from the National Endowment of the Arts to help operate the festival. Those funds covered only 2014 and 2015.

“That gave us a base of funding to work from when recruiting artists, but also being able to leverage that investment with other funders,” Bishop said. “It’s hard to say to a funder, ‘We have no money, please give us some money.’ With no funding it’s hard to put on such a big festival, so I don’t know what will happen, if the festival will be smaller now or just won’t happen.”

Tate said the Arts Center would also apply for funds through a grant program created in the city’s 2016 budget for events to seek transient guest tax dollars. The program, which has not yet began accepting applications, has a budget of $150,000.

In a separate request, the Lawrence Arts Center asked that the city partner in applying for $200,000 in grant money from the National Endowment of the Arts that would be used to bolster the Free State Festival in 2017 and 2018.

Commissioners voted to support the Arts Center in applying for the grant.

Later on in the meeting, commissioners approved allocating about $215,000 in transient guest tax money to support three track and field events, including and effort to attract the weeklong 2017 USA Track and Field Junior Olympic Championship to Rock Chalk Park.

Lawrence resident Robin Bayer asked that the commission “apply the same scrutiny” to that request for funding as it did for the Arts Center’s request.

The City Commission approved the request after considering the Junior Olympic Championship would create an estimated $11 million in direct spending.

“We’re at the ground floor with Rock Chalk Park,” Amyx said. “It’s built, we need to help get our money back. It’s a great opportunity to be able to serve junior athletes. It’s also an opportunity to show our town off to a whole lot of new people. We’ll thank them for spending money while they’re here.”

In other business, the commission:

• Voted unanimously to award Goddard-based Nowak Construction, Inc. an approximately $5.9 million contract to build a new stormwater pump station at the intersection of Maple and Sixth streets in North Lawrence. In a 2005 study, the existing Maple Street Pump Station was found to be too small, causing flooding in streets, residents’ yards and Lyons Park.

• Unanimously approved issuing $1.75 million in general obligation funds to be added to the $4.5 million gained from a 0.3 percent sales tax increase in 2008 for the construction of the new Maple Street Pump Station.

• Unanimously approved a request establishing a seven-member board to operate eXplore Lawrence, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, and move the bureau from under the umbrella of Destination Management, Inc.