Irmo leaders are mulling the future of the Okra Strut after learning the nationally-known festival is nearly penniless.
“Let’s just agree it’s broke and then figure out what we’re going to do,” Mayor Hardy King said Monday.
The 41-year-old festival – one of the most popular in the Midlands – is run by an independent panel through a partnership with Town Hall.
The event has not been profitable since 2006, the result of overspending and unrealistic revenue forecasts, some town officials say.
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Festival organizers have $14,000 in the bank but nearly all of it is earmarked for expected bills, town officials say.
But the steady stream of red ink doesn’t alarm some town leaders.
“It’s designed to put Irmo in a good light,” Councilman Barry A. Walker Sr. said. “We’re trying to build it back up – we may have to put some (more) money into it.”
But there’s concern that Town Hall soon will face demands to bear the entire tab for the two-day event.
It’s likely that Town Hall “will have to totally subsidize it” for the festival to survive, Councilwoman Kathy Condom predicted.
Irmo chipped in nearly $100,000 over the past two years – slightly more than half the total cost – to cover festival deficits, officials say. Sponsorships, vendor fees and beer sales are the main sources of festival income.
King and Condom want to put town staff in control of the event’s finances.
“There are just too many questions about money and how it’s handled,” Condom said.
So far, no one is pushing for a shake-up of the panel that oversees the festival. Finding volunteers for those roles is difficult, town officials say.
Neither festival chairman Kirk Luther nor administrator Susan Hoots could be reached for comment Monday.
Much of the trouble stems from “a lot of internal accountability problems” that would end with Town Hall’s review, King said.
But some of the changes sought could lead to new conflicts, particularly over musical groups that normally are the headline entertainment.
Walker and allies are pushing for better-known performers who are more costly than those who are regional and local draws.
Anxiety over festival finances comes after the gathering settled into its new home in Irmo Community Park this September. Town leaders spent $1.8 million to develop that 14-acre site, opened partly to give the festival a permanent home as other locations disappeared.
Organizers estimate the gathering attracts as many as 50,000 visitors to the town of 11,000 residents straddling the Lexington-Richland County border. The festival also has received raves in major publications.
Some town residents say the aspirations of organizers blinded them to the financial erosion that slowly undermined the festival.
“If they don’t have the money up front, it’s a losing proposition and ought to be terminated,” said Elmer Danko, who regularly attends Town Council sessions. “At the least, they need to rein it in.”
Other residents annoyed with the noise and traffic the festival creates say scrutiny of its finances is overdue.
“It seems the Okra Strut people play a shell game with money,” George Glassmeyer said. “The more you look into this, the messier it gets.”
But there’s no talk of abolishing the festival, despite its red ink.
King would be satisfied if it breaks even.
“It draws attention to us,” he said. “It’s something we ought to do.”