Madison Festival Update

Tourism officials make many changes behind the scenes of festival planning

Coordinators of each event face
many challenges to succeed

(May 2016)
Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

RoundAbout routinely previews major festivals and events in Madison, Ind., however, it is rare for readers to learn how these events fared – whether they made money or not, and what changes are made from year to year to improve them. The major festivals and events in Madison are organized and presented by a volunteer committee that is often led by a paid contract employee of the VisitMadison Inc. tourism board.
“The reason we do these major festivals is to bring new people to town in hopes that they will come back, and also to raise money for our tourism budget,” said Linda Lytle, executive director of VisitMadison Inc. “It’s a way to help fund our tourism budget because the innkeepers tax we receive only funds about 60 percent of our overall budget. So we have to come up with other ways to raise money to pay our bills.”
VisitMadison Inc. is the umbrella organization over Madison’s three major festivals – RiverRoots, Ribberfest and the Madison Chautauqua Festival of Art (The Madison Regatta Inc. oversees its own Regatta race event and is not associated with VisitMadison Inc.). As such, VisitMadison Inc. receives an administrative fee from each festival committee to offset the costs of its staff handling ticket sales and manning the events as support staff.
As the 2016 Madison festival season gets under way in May, we take a look at some of the behind-the-scenes planning that has taken place over the past winter and look ahead to see how changes are being made to enhance these events.

Greg Ziesemer

RiverRoots Music and Folk Art Festival. RiverRoots traditionally kicks off the summer festival season in Madison and is scheduled to return for its 11th year May 20-21 on the riverfront. This festival enjoys a strong backing of committed volunteers and music fans who have worked hard to support the growing event, in good times and bad. Three years ago, the committee formed its own 501c3 nonprofit organization, the Ohio River Valley Folk Society, to be able to solicit donations and apply for grants. The society, headed by president Tony Novello, has an educational element that reaches into local schools and also at the festival itself.
Festival coordinator Greg Ziesemer, a local musician himself, is in his sixth full year heading the planning committee, taking over after previous coordinator John Walburn died. But it has not come without challenges, primarily due to poor weather in recent years, especially last year when rain on Saturday led to low attendance. In fact, the festival lost $32,911 last year, according to Ziesemer’s reports to the tourism board, and the committee has had to work hard this year to gain new sponsorships and local grants to help keep the event viable. Another obstacle occurred soon after last year’s festival was over when the tourism board decided to increase the administrative fee it takes from RiverRoots from $5,000 to $10,000. Ziesemer argued that the festival could not afford to pay that amount, due to the financial loss. The RiverRoots committee also hired a Cincinnati company to handle online ticket sales this year, including camping and Will Call, which Ziesemer argued lessened the burden on the tourism staff. After a few months of negotiation, it was agreed that RiverRoots would pay the tourism board $7,500 for 2015 and increase it to $10,000 in 2016.
The RiverRoots committee has expanded the festival in recent years to include a second River Stage of musical acts, a Folk Art Village of exhibitors and demonstrations, a craft beer competition and a Folk Jam Tent. Last year, the committee expanded and redesigned the Folk Art Village, redesigned its website and added a new VIP Tent Experience.
The Ohio River Valley Folk Society, meanwhile, continues to organize and grow its RiverRoots Music Series in the winter months that attract large crowd The group recently completed its second full season of concerts and is planning to stage a free RiverRoots “warm-up show” on Thursday night, May 19, before the festival featuring Madison’s own Rusty Bladen, followed by Appalatin of Louisville. This show will take place on the River Stage at the riverfront.

Kathy Ayers

Madison Ribberfest. This blues and barbecue event has been wildly popular over the years and continues to grow. This year’s festival is set for Aug. 19-20 on the Madison riverfront. Last year’s attendance of about 10,000 over two days was not the biggest, according to coordinator Kathy Ayers, but the festival remains a top attraction among visitors and locals, alike. The biggest crowd ever to attend Ribberfest – more than 12,000 – was in 2011 when Buddy Guy was the headliner, Lytle said.
The City of Madison workers completed a renovation and expansion of the terraced Madison Bicentennial Park last year just before Ribberfest, allowing festival organizers to move their VIP Tents back to provide more blues music viewing area for fans.
Ayers, meanwhile, requested and received a substantial raise of $5,000, increasing her annual stipend to $26,000. Her request was made to the VisitMadison Inc. board after it had approved $24,000 to be split between the two new co-coordinators of the Madison Chautauqua – Jenny Youngblood and Amy Fischmer. “Kathy felt she should be compensated more than the two new Chautauqua directors because of her experience,” Lytle explained.
Each festival director is paid out of their respective festival budgets, but the amounts must be approved by the tourism board, Lytle said. Ziesemer’s stipend, meanwhile, was increased to $12,000 in 2015 as RiverRoots coordinator. The amount is the same for this year.
Meantime, VisitMadison Inc. board last year voted to double the administrative fee from Ribberfest, from $10,000 to $20,000, to help cover the office’s budget deficit, according to tourism reports. Ayers and her committee argued the increase was too much and are still in negotiations about arriving at a transitional amount to be paid to the board in 2016. But Lytle said the amount would eventually be $20,000, beginning in 2017. Ribberfest has $285,000 in reserve certificates of deposit accounts to be used as a “rainy day fund,” according to tourism reports.
But the Ribber-fest budget is approximately $400,000 to stage the event. The VisitMadison Inc. board has said it wants each festival committee to put enough money in reserve accounts to be able to stage their event should weather or other factors cause it to be cancelled one year.
The Chautauqua committee, meanwhile, has about $100,000 invested in certificates of deposit, Lytle said.

Amy Fischmer

Madison Chautauqua. After completing her final transition year, 18-year Chautauqua coordinator Georgie Kelly retired, turning over leadership to co-coordinators Fischmer and Youngblood. The two are sharing duties to head Madison’s largest festival, which annually draws about 60,000 to Madison over two days in the fall, Lytle said.
This year is set for Sept. 24-25 in downtown Madison and is the biggest revenue generator for the community, Lytle said, filling up hotels throughout the region and shops and restaurants all over town.
The festival has been struggling in recent years  to maintain its goal of 250 exhibitors, which it reached five years ago, Lytle said. Last year, the festival featured only 183 exhibitors. Part of the challenge has been the increasing infringement upon Chautauqua grounds by neighbors who sell items or allow others to come in and set up in their yards next door to the Chautauqua’s official, juried exhibitors. The co-coordinators are working with Madison city officials to possibly draft some type of zoning ordinance to help address this growing problem, Lytle said.

Jenny Youngblood

This year, the Chautauqua Festival has been approved to stage a Demonstration Village as a Legacy Project as part of the Indiana Bicentennial. The committee wants to feature local artisans and possibly demonstrations by Potawatomi Indians, according to tourism reports.

Nights Before Christmas Candlelight Tour of Homes. Marci Jones of the VisitMadison Inc. staff coordinates this event, which had perhaps its best year in 2015. Ticket sales soared to 3,266 in 2015, compared to 2,261 the previous year, and a profit of more than $27,000, according to tourism reports. As a result, organizers plan to increase the ticket prices in 2016 for the first time in a decade, Lytle said.
The event also holds a Cookie Caper, which last year raised $3,710, all of which was donated to Southeastern Indiana Voices for Children.
For a city of only 13,000, it is impressive that Madison can stage such large and successful festival events with limited staff and resources. It is thanks to many dedicated volunteers whose pride for their hometown extends far beyond words but rather is evidenced by actions when it comes to getting involved and making sure these events thrive. As such, these major, popular events have become part of the fabric of life in this small river town.

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: info@RoundAbout.bz.

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