The age of the professional festival

(Kim Buckley, of the entertainment management company The Works, speaks to city council while Wayne Van De Graaff, president of the company Absolute Lunacy, listens during a presentation on Tuesday.)

At a city council meeting that ran far too long, Councillor Jason Baker proved to be a reliable supply of usable quotes – too many of which I did not use.

I refer to Tuesday’s discussion of Brockville’s planned festival celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary.

The Rails to Trails event includes a P.T. Barnum themed carnival portion called “Alive on the Inside,” a title to which many city councillors want to add the words “but not on the outside and not in Brockville.”

And in the run-up to a narrow vote in support of negotiations for the festival, Baker was among those arguing strenuously for the ‘No’ side.

There is, of course, the quote I did use, in which the veteran councillor and proven fiscal watchdog objected to the city paying $75,000 for a company to organize a four-day festival.

I’m not at liberty to be gambling with the taxpayers’ money to this extent,” said Baker.

Later on, when he (mistakenly) believed economic development director Dave Paul would spend a lot of time writing grant applications for the festival, rather than actual economic development, Baker let loose in similar rhetorical style, leading colleagues to wonder whether it was an early re-election bid.

And then there was this other statement, one I reference now because it opens up a useful side-debate on this entire festival fracas.

Baker objected to the city’s latest trend toward festivals (like Tall Ships) managed from city hall, or by contractors hired by city hall (as this new Rails to Trails event promises to be).

We open the door to professionally-managed festivals and the volunteer-driven festival is going to go out of business,” said Baker.

That’s a thread that deserves to be pulled a little, to see where it leads.

The obvious response came from supporters of the Rails to Trails concept, who noted that, while Riverfest thrived on the hard work of volunteers for the better part of three decades, no one answered the city’s call for volunteers to run the Canada 150 bash.

The professionally-managed festival did not do in the volunteer-driven festival; it just emerged after the volunteers either burned out or got too busy.

(RibFest, for instance, is volunteer-driven, but its event is already big enough and successful enough that one cannot tax those volunteers any further.)

In these economic and demographic times, we may in fact be entering the age of the professionally-managed festival.

Professional management may not have killed its volunteer counterpart, but Baker’s warning is valid nonetheless. We must ensure that the rise of the professionally-managed festival does not crowd out future volunteers if, after a time, they do emerge with a new event in mind.

But for now, it seems, we have reached a juncture where, if we want more than what people are already willing or able to do, we will have to pay for it.