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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Festivals for everyone to enjoy

In Saturday’s paper, Joe Belanger targeted a few members of council, myself included, as pandering “to the ridiculous selfish bleatings of a few (votes) at the expense of everyone else”. What did we do to merit such an attack?

Our sin apparently was that we have supported retaining the official closing time for outdoor festivals at 11:p.m.

I’m not sure what occasioned this outburst. Among the charges levelled by Belanger is that the city does not contribute enough money to Sunfest, only $7,100, an amount that he deems as “nothing short of laughable”.

As well, Belanger states, “The city is only now talking about extending the 11 p.m. curfew to midnight or even as late as 1:30 a.m.” If that’s the talk, it certainly is not at council.

Some clarification is clearly in order.

All our festivals-Sunfest, Home County Folk Festival, Ribfest, Bluesfest, and many more- make our city welcoming and exciting. I love to listen to the music, eat the delicious and exotic foods, shop at the artisans’ stalls with their intriguing, colourful wares. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people descend upon our streets and parks at festival time indicates that they share my enthusiasm.

The city recognizes the economic and social value of the festivals to London. The support that we provide allows the operator to rent out public space to vendors which in turn provides support for the entertainment that is the main draw to the event.

This is not a minor support. If you visited Sunfest this year you will know that vendors were crammed cheek by jowl into the park area. These vendors generate significant revenue for the event, which, in addition to private sector and government funding, allows for free admission. The fact that so many vendors are turned away and that such excellent performers are attracted to Sunfest suggests that the festival is thriving. Would it be fiscally responsible for the city to levy additional taxes to support a healthy festival?

With respect to the 11 p.m. closing time, I am not aware of any move to extend these, other than the fact that the “noise by-law” is reviewed yearly.

Last May, the Environment and Transportation Committee recommended to Council hiring a professional sound engineer to determine the feasibility of limiting sound decibels from community and special events and the related noise impact on surrounding neighbourhoods and to report back at a future Environment and Transportation Committee meeting. That motion was defeated 11-7 at council, the recorded vote being as follows:
YEAS: Mayor DeCicco-Best, Deputy Mayor Gosnell, Controllers Polhill and Hume and Councillors Miller, Van Meerbergen and Caranci. (7)
NAYS: Controller Barber and Councillors MacDonald, Armstrong, Usher, Orser, Lonc, Bryant, Eagle, Baechler, Hubert and Branscombe. (11)

This vote was followed by a motion by Councillor Caranci, seconded by Councillor Orser that NO ACTION BE TAKEN with respect to extending the permissible hours of operation for festivals and special events. The motion was carried with a show of hands.

It is interesting that Belanger chose to identify seven people as being party poopers when one of those he named was not even present and he failed to identify others who voted with the prevailing side.

There are some important reasons for not extending the hours past 11 p.m. for festivals in the parks.

The parks are in residential areas. An 11 p.m. closing respects the needs of the downtown residents for a bit of quiet at the end of the day. They are the ones who are impacted all summer long. Mostly, they love the festival atmosphere and enjoy having it close by. But they also like to get a bit of rest from time to time in their own homes especially in summer when it is too warm to close the windows. Council has, as in the case of Bluesfest, been willing to extend the hours when the activity is not so close to residential areas.

Most of us who support the 11 p.m. closing do not represent downtown wards. Belanger himself states that there are “very few” people who are impacted. To suggest that we are pandering to votes is ludicrous.

Second, there is the impact on businesses in the downtown and other parts of the city. While festivals bring many people to the city, they often have a negative effect on the revenues of the restaurants and bars in the surrounding area. By closing down at 11, those who wish to continue to party are welcome at the many nearby establishments. Home County Folk Festival has implemented after hours concerts at the Aeolian Hall for those who wish to celebrate longer.

Then there is the matter of the vendors. The longer the festival stays open, the longer they have to remain on site even though sales for many become sluggish as the sun begins to set. Yesterday, I took it upon myself to survey some of the vendors at Home County. Of the 35 I interviewed, all but 3 were proprietors of the business, and almost half had also been at Sunfest. Of the 35, 21 wished to retain the 11 p.m. closing, 7 wished it could be even earlier, and 4 thought 12 would be a good time. 3 others thought it should be as late as possible or didn’t care. Later hours were more likely to be preferred by food vendors, especially hourly paid employees. Many vendors spoke of the problems of getting enough rest between shutdown and re-opening, particularly those who face a two-hour drive to get home. A few also mentioned that later in the evening crowds tend to get a bit more boisterous as a result of access to alcohol and concerns about safety of volunteers and workers were mentioned.

I have not spoken with the entertainers and what their views about closing time are, but I do know that the organizers of Home County are happy with the status quo. This evening’s closing came a little earlier this year, something that was not dictated by council but the decision of the organizers themselves. Many of the vendors and volunteers were pleased by the change. It makes it possible for them to get ready for the week ahead.

Finally, a recent report from the Creative Cities Festivals and Events Working Group did not mention any concerns expressed by focus groups consisting of events organizers about closing times. Their concerns were about access to funding, information and volunteers, none of which would be eased by even longer hours to fill with additional programming.

So a note to Joe Belanger: Joe, I don’t know who on council doesn’t love the festival. I was there last weekend and everyday this weekend. I know that several of my colleagues who were accused of calling the festival “noise” were also there. But we do have a responsibility to ensure that the pleasure that we get is sustainable and not at the expense of the rights and needs of others. Sometimes like little children we want to stay up all night and not have the fun end. But perhaps the secret to a successful event is to leave them wanting more.

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