Editorial: Columbia must be wary about funding festivals

December 11, 2012 

— AT THE RISK of being labeled party poopers, we aren’t excited about plans to revive the 3 Rivers Music Festival — at least not if it involves pouring public dollars into it.

We don’t have anything against a good party, particularly if it is a well-run event that promotes Columbia’s economic development. But our capital city has a poor track record when it comes to its support of festivals. There’s a long list of festivals that started off with noble goals but turned into losing ventures that gobbled up public dollars, leaving more worthy options wanting.

There was no bigger example of that than the original 3 Rivers Music Festival, which sucked up $1.6 million in city tax funds from 2000 to 2006 before finally being shut down. While the festival generally drew respectably sized, diverse crowds, it never was able to consistently break even. More often than not, City Council not only provided initial funding but had to come back after the final bills rolled in to bail it out with additional public money.

So, you can imagine our surprise when a new group of organizers recently appeared before City Council proposing to resurrect the 3 Rivers Music Festival under the same name but with a different format. The outdoor festival would be held in mid-summer rather than the spring and would take place at a former racetrack in Cayce and in downtown Columbia.

Naturally, organizers are promising that the event would make Columbia a happening place on the music scene. But the bottom line is whether it makes fiscal sense for taxpayers.

All too often, when organizers come up with an idea for the latest, greatest festival, they end up before City Council or some other public body looking for money to stage their event. But any festival that can’t survive without public funding isn’t worth doing. The lack of ample sponsorships from private businesses is a telltale sign that this might not be a good investment.

Organizers of the new 3 Rivers festival say that the party can be produced for $500,000, with half of the money coming from corporate sponsors. But how much of the other half would the city be asked to cover? And if sponsors don’t come through, then what? Would the city be on the hook for the difference?

This isn’t just about the 3 Rivers festival. We feel the same way about the city’s Famously Hot New Year’s Eve party, which, in its first year, drew a diverse and unexpected crowd of 20,000 people, garnering national attention and generating an estimated $1.5 million in economic impact for hotels, restaurants and retailers.

Although it was a great success, the city had to provide more funding than it originally planned, in part because the festival didn’t get the financial support it expected from sponsors. We have cautioned against depending on public funds to bail the event out in future years.

Mayor Steve Benjamin has expressed interest in seeing the 3 Rivers Music Festival make a return, but he wisely noted that “the financial plan used before didn’t work.”

Columbia needs to kick its bad habit of supporting money-losing festivals, which means it must be more selective and must severely limit its liability. Most importantly, it must learn to say no.

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