|Could the amphitheater host a Blues Festival in Fort Thomas to replace Merchants and Music in 2017? FTM file.|
The 150th anniversary of the founding of Fort Thomas will culminate in a weeklong celebration in July of 2017 and a large music act during that week will take the place of the annual Merchants and Music festival.
But November's City Council meeting came with another big music proposal: the Merchants and Music date in September could be replaced by a Blues Festival.
And with this announcement came an uncommon moment in recent City Council history: In a 6-0 vote, the Council is allowing Mayor Eric Haas and City Councilmember John Muller, Chair of the Finance Committee, to make the final decision on whether or not Fort Thomas should host the Blues Festival after reviewing the expected associated costs.
Renaissance Manager and Economic Development Director, Debbie Buckley, was the one who approached council with the ida.
"Because of the sesquicentennial and the amount of work involved, Renaissance has decided not to do Merchants and Music as Merchants and Music for next year," she said at the November Council meeting. "However, we took a lot of grief for not having Merchants and Music."
|The Campbell County YMCA. This is an advertisement.|
"You know, you could fit that in on the Merchants and Music weekend, and we wouldn't lose anything," Buckley said at the Council meeting.
Buckley added that Mebs wanted to go big. "He was bringing in a headliner band, he wanted to bring in a whole bunch of blues music, Colonel De agreed to do a BBQ throw-down—this could be really good."
|Debbie Buckley addressing Fort Thomas City Council. FTM file.|
According to Buckley Mebs would be using the amphitheater, the City would host a BBQ and the City would need to supply police officers, fire department services, access to the Mess Hall and clean-up services.
"We would let him have the profits from the beer sales, because he would bringing in the volunteers to sell it," Buckley said. "We would be there to help. We'd also help him get vendors in, some of our own city's businesses would be vendors in it because they're really not going to have that opportunity during the sesquicentennial."
Buckley then asked for permission from the Council, but there were some concerns.
City Councilmember Ken Bowman spoke in favor of the Blues Festival.
"I'm highly in support of this and it wouldn't necessarily be a blues-only kind of a festival," Bowman said at the meeting. "I've spoken with him [Mebs] and he's talking about bringing in some other major acts that cost serious money but aren't necessarily only blues. But the expense, he's covering the talent ... all the major expenses he's agreed to pick on and he's very capable. I have a lot of faith in him and what he's been doing."
City Administrative Officer Ron Dill acknowledged that a lot of the planning and expense would be deferred to Mebs and that Mebs would be raising money using his volunteers and resources for what would be, essentially, a charity event. But the City of Fort Thomas would be providing both the venue and City support for the day. "The reason it was brought before council was that it does require our resources," Dill said.
"I would point out that it's their hope for it to be an annual event and certainly if it's successful we would probably want to be a part of that but there's no commitment by the city to maintain it past the first year," Dill said. "So obviously it would be an opportunity to evaluate the event."
City Councilmember Jeff Bezold asked about the cost to the city for the event.
Dill said it would depend on a number of factors but the City would cover police and fire department services, as well as clean-up personnel. He said he expects the cost to be similar to the Fourth of July event.
"Is there any Return-Of-Investment for us in this?" Bezold asked.
Dill said that the whole impetus behind Merchants & Music was to bring more people into the city, and to share our business associations and contacts—and that ROI is not measurable. "There is no intended return to the City monetarily so obviously that's part of the reason Council needs to make the action," Dill said, adding that local businesses would be able to participate in the event.
"We expect a large crowd much like Merchants & Music, and hopefully we'll have the success that we've always had," Buckley said. "Those businesses will profit from that."
Bezold said that he wasn't necessarily concerned if the City was going to profit from the Festival but he did have concerns with what it would cost to have the City's departments service the event and clean up afterwards.
He added that he thought it was a great idea, but was concerned about the cost in terms of manpower, simply because these events are often very heavily staffed.
Councilman Roger Peterman agreed.
"For example, the mess hall, we can't allow people to use that, at no cost, generally, not even nonprofits, because then everyone would want it, and you'd have to make the accommodation to all of them so, it's a great idea, but those are legitimate questions," said Peterman, who is also part of the Finance Committee.
Dill agreed that yes, there is the potential loss of revenue so we have to be a partner in the festival. "It has to be a city-sponsored event, in order for us to take out those types of costs that we'd otherwise gain," he said.
Mayor Eric Haas asked for clarification on who would cover the cost of tents.
Buckley said there is one large tent—the VIP Tent—the City of Fort Thomas would have to pay for, but vendors would pay for their own tents.
"The Mess Hall, all those things, while there are charges for that, for people to use there is no cost to the City, so it doesn't cost us anything but we would normally charge," Haas said.
Bezold noted that it would, however, cost clean-up and staffing.
"It's the staffing," Haas said. "That's the big issue," Haas said.
Dill said clean-up services wouldn't be a significant cost, rather the safety department being present on location during the course of the day would represent the larger cost.
"I would think also the cost of not doing something in September after a 13-year history of everybody anticipating a September, Fort Thomas, big-bang event from a P.R. standpoint, I'm really glad this is a possibility," Bowman said.
Peterman noted that he worries about the precedent this would set, however—many groups are trying to find ways to raise money, through events, even though this one may be worthwhile and exciting.
Bowman said that with this particular event, however, Mebs has the means to pull off something big—something not many non-profit organizations can do.
"Just because he's spending "X" amount of dollars doesn't mean we need to spend "X" amount of dollars," Bezold said. "That's kind of the point I'm trying to make here. If he's spending an exorbitant amount of money and ours is just a small percentage we still have a small percentage that we're letting a fundraising unit use our facilities and our staffing and our resources, then, to Roger's point, then others are going to expect the same thing, regardless of how much money they spend, our cost is going to be very relative. ... To me, I don't care how much the whole thing costs, that we're saving money on it, that we're not spending, we're still spending money on it that others will expect in return."
Peterman brought up the fact that it's difficult to make a motion on this, given the lack of knowledge regarding specific numbers, time is of concern. Bands book out months in advance.
"What about if we authorize me to sign an expenditure of up to so much on City dollars, then we can put numbers together ... not to exceed blank, whatever that is?" Haas asked the Council.
Peterman suggested that because Muller, whose term ends on December 31, 2016 is chair of the Finance Committee, council could agree to approve the festival based on "reasonable expenditures" approved by Muller and Haas.
Peterman made the motion, Bezold seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.
"We'll weigh all of the costs and benefits," said Muller.
He said it would also be a good exercise for city finance staff to compile a list of how much each event costs the city.
"We just have to be careful when we are spending city money and resources for private causes," he said.
A decision on what will happen could come soon as there is only one more council meeting in 2017.