Festival Fatigue or Killing the Cash Cow?

Festival Fatigue or Killing the Cash Cow?

By Ron Jolly

If you google "Traverse City festival fatigue" you'll find dozens of newspapers, radio stations and blog sites across the country posting stories about city resident Lou Colombo's attempt to reduce festival frequency and noise. His unrealized hope was to reserve the Open Space for several weeks for a Nothing Festival, an effort that spurred the city commission to form a satisfactory festival policy.

As a result, TC probably received enough free media coverage on festival fatigue to cancel out the half million dollars of national Pure Michigan ads paid for by local motel and hotel operators.

Up until last fall when Colombo proposed his Nothing Festival, Traverse City was the recipient of only positive PR in the form of "Best of" or "Top 10" lists for our wine, beer, restaurants, beaches, festivals, and book lovers.

Most recently, in December the travel website Lonely Planet chose Grand Rapids and the "Gold Coast" of Lake Michigan, including Traverse City, as its number-one travel destination for 2014.

One of the highlights of Traverse City, according to the article, is its music and movie festivals.

Visitors to the Traverse City area spend an estimated $1 billion a year, according to Brad Van Dommelen, executive director of Traverse City Tourism.

"That is money that is earned elsewhere that is being brought into our community – deposited in local businesses," he said in a public radio interview.

For those who aren't convinced the city benefits economically from festival-going tourists, consider this:

Visitors may not drop into city hall to make direct payments to the city clerk, but thousands of tourists and nearby locals come here to attend various festivals; they spend money on food, lodging, gasoline, souvenirs, and clothing. Merchants seek out areas with high traffic, especially if that pedestrian traffic involves happy people on vacation. As a result, property values in busy tourist zones are at a premium. Taxes paid to the city are based on property values. Higher property values equal higher taxes.

There's no doubt that tourism brings in a lot of money to Traverse City. But there's no data detailing the cost of wear and tear placed on the city infrastructure by tourists, nor are there estimates on city tax revenues resulting directly and indirectly from tourism in general, specifically from festivals.

City commissioners are subsequently ill equipped to make wise policy.

We don't know if they've been bombarded with e-mails and phone calls from residents enraged over Open Space festivals, or if Lou Colombo was the only complainant, or something in between. In other words, we don't know if the number of festivals and the level of decibels are worthy of national attention, or perhaps just something to be discussed over coffee.

I suspect festival policy will remain an issue in the next election, even if it's two years from now. Younger 20- and 30-something residents, the demographic that everyone seems to want to attract to TC, appear to enjoy festivals on the bay. If that's true, the festival issue could mark a beginning in the change of leadership in TC for the next generation.

Two possible solutions: Issue summer Open Space festival permits only to those promoters who can attract a big crowd of happy tourists to TC in March or April, typical down months for retailers. Promote a successful spring festival; earn a permit for a summer festival!

Or, just leave all as is, and see if the controversy fades away by the end of 2014.

Ron Jolly is a talk show host with WTCM NewsTalk 580.