July 4, 2016

Hartford’s budget strain means uncertain future for popular events

PHOTO | Contributed
PHOTO | Contributed
Winterfest, one of many Hartford events losing city subsidies this year, drew 45,000 ice skaters last winter to Bushnell Park.
PHOTO | Contributed
The Hartford Marathon received nearly $52,000 in in-kind aid from the city of Hartford.
PHOTO | Flickr user Nate | Creative Commons
The 25th annual Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, which is scheduled for the weekend of July 15, faces a loss of city subsidies.
PHOTO: Flickr user Gov. Malloy Creative Commons
The Puerto Rican Day Parade received $98,000 in in-kind support from the city in fiscal 2015.

Hartford-area companies, some of which contribute tens of thousands of dollars annually to the city's annual parades, festivals and public celebrations, can expect to see donation requests increase in number and urgency, if they haven't already.

The city's operating budget for the newly begun fiscal year contains deep cuts for events that in the past have relied — in many cases heavily — on free or discounted police coverage and cash grants.

The first domino fell last week, when Riverfront Recapture announced it would be forced to cancel its popular July fireworks celebration, part of Riverfest, because it would have to pay an estimated $100,000 for police and fire staffing previously donated by the cities of Hartford and East Hartford.

For the first 11 months of fiscal year 2016, which ended June 30, Hartford's contribution to special events netted out more than $800,000, the majority of it in-kind public safety staffing, according to the city. More than 20 events received financial or staffing support including First Night Hartford, Winterfest, Riverfest and the Hartford Eversource Marathon — arguably the city's most prominent and far-reaching event. Also receiving backing were seven parades, the Greater Hartford Jazz Festival, and a free concert series in Bushnell Park called Monday Night Jazz.

Mayor Luke Bronin said event funding cuts represent a new economic reality for the city, which has already laid off 40 employees, is trying to negotiate $15 million in union givebacks and faces even higher deficits in the years ahead. He said the city intends to work with organizers as much as it can, but he hopes private donors or other area towns step up to fund events that draw regional crowds.

Fundraising efforts have already begun to ramp up, but the lack of city support leaves sizeable holes in some of the larger events' budgets — as much as 50 percent for Winterfest and roughly 33 percent for First Night, according to their nonprofit organizers, both of which have launched public appeals for donations.

Organizers worry that a decline in special events that draw in thousands from around the state and beyond, could hurt the city's economy as well as its quality of life.

"There's a positive social and economic impact when thousands of people come downtown for each and every event," said Nicole Glander, a First Night organizer who is coordinating a fundraising push.

In the fiscal 2016 budget, First Night received a $33,000 cash grant and $20,000 in in-kind support from the city, which supported the event's $130,000 to $150,000 budget, Glander said.

The impact on the marathon's budget would be proportionally smaller — approximately $60,000 in added costs for the weekend-long event, out of a $2 million budget.

Beth Shluger, executive director of the Hartford Marathon Foundation, said the race isn't going away, but she's worried about how the foundation will close the gap in time for October's competition. Entry fees are already set and many vendor commitments have been made. She hopes the city might allow the event to use private contractors, rather than uniformed officers, to provide overnight security at Bushnell Park for that weekend.

The foundation has commissioned annual studies of the marathon's economic impact, which last year was pegged at $13.2 million. The race drew 67,000 participants and spectators.

Parade budgets imperiled

The largest financial impacts will be on the city's various parades, which in some instances have smaller overall budgets than the city says it spends to provide police officers and other staff.

Among the eight parades the city helped fund in fiscal year 2015, the Greater Hartford Puerto Rican Day Parade had the highest staffing costs — nearly $98,000, according to city records.

Sammy Vega, president of parade organizer Connecticut Institute for Community Development (CICD), said his organization will have a difficult time raising that much money.

"I don't know how we're going to do it," Vega said.

He said costs already rose sharply for this year's parade and related Festival del Coqui, held June 5. Last year, organizers paid the city $20,000 to help cover some of the costs. This year, just weeks before the event, Vega said the city called and asked for triple that amount.

CICD was able to pay it, he said, but he worries about next year.

The Greater Hartford St. Patrick's Day Parade — run by the Central Connecticut Celtic Cultural Committee — could also see a sharp increase in costs. The parade received $57,000 worth of in-kind support from the city last fiscal year, according to the city's accounting. The entire parade costs around $45,000, said Eileen K. Moore, a member of the organizer's board.

Moore said organizers plan to raise more money for next year's parade and negotiate police staffing levels and costs with the city, but she called the potential funding gap catastrophic.

"We will shortly begin to see a lot of these different events fall by the wayside," Moore said. "This could be the first time in 45 years we don't have a parade."

Winterfest faces large gap

Winterfest, a several-months-long event featuring free ice skating and holiday programs in Bushnell Park, was among the largest event recipients of city aid last year.

Jackie Gorsky Mandyck, an event consultant who coordinates Winterfest on behalf of the nonprofit iQuilt Partnership, said the city wrote checks totaling approximately $150,000 last fiscal year to help fill the initiative's $280,000 budget. Much of the expense relates to hiring a contractor to set up, maintain and staff the outdoor rink upon which 45,000 people skated last winter.

In the hopes of keeping Winterfest alive, Mandyck has launched a crowdfunding campaign on crowdrise.com to solicit donations. As of last week, the campaign received pledges totaling $45,000.

IQuilt has pared down its anticipated event budget to $200,000, which would mean ending the event right after New Year's Day, several weeks earlier than normal. If fundraising exceeds that goal, Winterfest organizers intend to tack on additional days accordingly, Mandyck said.

The amount raised so far includes large repeat donations from area companies like Travelers and The Hartford, which pledged $25,000 and $10,000, respectively.

"They're getting asked by a lot of other organizations," Mandcyk said. "For us to maintain flat, I'm very appreciative of everything they're doing."

Bronin laments, stands by cuts

While event organizers are understandably worried about the loss of funds, many have heard and read Bronin's message about the city's dire financial picture.

In an interview last week — the day after Riverfest announced it was canceling its fireworks — Bronin said he takes no joy in presiding over a budget with so many cuts in it.

"As a father of three young kids who loved the fireworks, it's not an easy decision to cancel an event like that," Bronin said.

He knows that some events may not survive the cuts, but he stands by them, pointing out that he's also had to cut city employees and funding for various nonprofit service providers. He's also trying to convince the city's unions to give more than $15 million in concessions this year.

"I think it would be awfully hard to justify some of the very difficult cuts that we've had to make, some of the layoffs that we've had to do, while at the same time continuing to spend such a significant amount of money on events," Bronin said.

There may be some hope for event organizers. Bronin said he expects there to be approximately $100,000 available for events in this year's budget. It's much less money than last year, but it's something.

Bronin said he and city councilors are still discussing exactly how the money will be divvied up.

Donors feel the pressure too

Plenty of companies are hearing from nonprofits in need right now, said Oz Griebel, CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance. He also wears a second hat as volunteer treasurer of iQuilt's board.

Griebel often advocates for improvements to the city's business climate and for tightened public spending. He said he supports Bronin's budget cuts, as difficult as they are.

"There is a sea change that's going on," he said. "This is definitely needed to help get the city's fiscal house in order, which we all applaud. At the same time, it does have an impact on a whole variety of areas."

Griebel said corporate sponsorships show that area companies care about more than just taxes.

"You have to be concerned about 'what's it like to live here?' " he said.

He thinks businesses will do as much as they can to help, but at least for this year, many likely have their budgets set, he said.

In addition, companies know that events will likely have a similar need next year, and that they may feel pressured to match any increased funding they provide in 2016, he said.

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