Growing pains

Festival’s success prompts
new policy to establish oversight

Tourism board, festival committee
debate control of funds

By Don Ward,

After six successful years and a bank account full of money, Madison Ribberfest and tourism officials last spring experienced an Alexander Haig moment by asking themselves: “Who’s in charge here?”
More specifically, the question became: “Who’s in control of the money generated by the festival?”
The question soon grew into a debate at tourism meetings last winter and eventually triggered a closed-door meeting in April with Ribberfest committee members who showed up en masse to air their differences over how the festival profits should be used – and who should decide.
The issue arose last winter when the Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau board decided to take an additional $2,000 of Ribberfest proceeds into its general operating fund for the 2008 budget, which now exceeds $330,000. Ribberfest already contributed $8,000 annually to the CVB’s budget, according to festival director Kathy Ayers.

Ribberfest Logo

Kathy Ayers

Kathy Ayers

"We drafted this
policy to clearly
identify the roles
of the CVB board
and the volunteers
of the Ribberfest."

– Corey Murphy,
CVB board member

Added to that debate was Ayers’ request for a $2,500 raise, from $13,500 to $16,000 a year, for her part in managing the barbecue and blues festival, which itself has a budget topping $277,000.
By comparison, the Madison Chautauqua Festival of Art operates on a budget of $96,000. Its director is paid $24,500 a year to manage the event on a contractual basis.
Ayers has been on the festival committee since it began in 2002. She took over as director in mid-year of 2003 when founder Jeff Garrett gave up the reins to become executive director of the Madison Area Chamber of Commerce. She declined to accept a salary that first year because, she said, she was just learning the job and came in midstream.
In 2004, she was paid $12,000 to manage the event as its director on a contractual basis. In 2006, her salary was increased to $12,500. In 2007, she requested a $2,000 raise. To accommodate her, the CVB increased her stipend to $13,500 and also made her a part-time employee, thereby paying her taxes, resulting in about $14,500 in compensation.
When Ayers submitted her Ribberfest budget for 2008, she included another raise for herself. At first, the CVB board refused to consider it, but then the sparks began to fly. Ribberfest committee members came to her defense, arguing that Ayers deserved the increase. Kevin Watkins, an executive board member of the Ribberfest committee, met with the CVB board in May to discuss the issues of Ayers' salary and control of the festival's proceeds.
In the end, the board agreed to increase Ayers' salary to $16,000 this year. To do so, the CVB took her off the employee payroll and put her back on contract labor status. Ayers is paid out of the Ribberfest bank account in the same way that the Chautauqua director is paid out of Chautauqua funds.
The CVB's approval of Ayers' salary increase, however, included a proviso that the CVB's newly crafted "Ribberfest Policy" be part of the agreement. That policy, approved by the board after much discussion, states that the CVB board is the ultimate authority over the Ribberfest budget, personnel and profits. The page-long policy concludes by saying, "It is not in the best interest of the MACVB (tourism board) to harm the viability of the festival through the irresponsible use of the festival as a non-tax alternative revenue source."
CVB board member Corey Murphy drafted the Ribberfest Policy. There is no such policy for the CVB's other festivals – Madison Chautauqua and the Ohio River Valley Folk Festival – "because so far we have no need for one for those festivals," said tourism director Linda Lytle.
"We drafted this policy to clearly identify the roles of the CVB board and the volunteers of the Ribberfest," Murphy said at the meeting. "This spells out a set policy and general oversight of Ribberfest. I think that any time we can communicate and provide that in writing, we can move forward."
Watkins responded to the board's action, saying, "We are not in agreement of the entire wording ... it does not represent the feelings of the Ribberfest committee."
Watkins explained that the committee wants control of how the festival proceeds are spent. "We feel it implies no consensus on our part in how our proceeds are distributed. We don't want the CVB dictating to us our budget or operations.
"Our committee members have a vested interest in the success of this festival; they are passionate about it. They have a feeling of ownership of it in a way because of all the time and work they put into it. So don't tell us how we are to spend our money. Ask us, and let's work on it together."
CVB board members explained that when it comes to liability or legal issues, the CVB is ultimately responsible. The festival operates under the umbrella of the nonprofit Indiana corporation status of the Madison tourism board. It "belongs" to the CVB.
"We did not take the $2,000 for our budget to be disrespectful to the Ribberfest; we've always had that right," CVB board president Lucy Dattilo said during the discussion.
The board's decision to take more money for its budget was made to help cover the cost of having the CVB staff sell wristbands and T-shirts and field calls for the festival, Lytle said.
Lytle said she believes the issue of control came up only because of Ayers' request for a salary increase. "The festival is in its seventh year and this has just now become an issue. I think it's because of someone's salary. We've taken money before and no one's said anything about it."
Last year, the Ribberfest turned a profit of more than $16,000, according to Ayers. The money comes primarily from sponsorships, wristband and souvenir sales. The committee has spent some of its proceeds over the years to improve the infrastructure, such as electricity and water, along the riverfront. The committee has also purchased such items as radios, ticket counters, gates and tents.
The large Ribberfest budget helps the committee hire top quality blues bands, gate security and to pay for liability insurance to cover alcohol sales. "The quality of our blues bands continues to go up, and people from other blues communities say they are amazed at the talent we have here," Ayers said.
The future of the festival looks bright. There is a waiting list for VIP tents. Sponsors have remained stable over the years. Company banners line the fence around the blues music stage. Admission wristband pre-sales is strong. Volunteerism is high. The family oriented atmosphere and varied activities keep locals and visitors coming back.
The festival has built a nest egg "rainy day" fund of around $30,000 to help it survive a financially lean year, should there ever be one. And despite a somewhat turbulent spring, the committee and the tourism board have worked out their differences for the time being.
"I think we're content with the decisions the board came up with," Ayers said. "The committee has accepted the new policy and the terms, so we’ll see how it goes."

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259.

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