Irmo officials are taking more control over the financially troubled Okra Strut festival.
The move comes after a divided Town Council decided late Tuesday against retaining festival administrator Susan Hoots after learning the nationally recognized gathering is nearly broke.
Too many questions remain unanswered about the festival’s persistent red ink, Councilwoman Kathy Condom said.
The festival has been unprofitable since 2007 through a mix of overspending and unrealistic revenue forecasts, officials say.
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Part of the problem was “a lot of expenses we didn’t count on” as the event settled into its new home in Irmo Community Park that won’t be repeated, festival chairman Kirk Luther said.
Town administrator Bob Brown was told to develop a spending plan for the 42nd edition of the festival planned for September. Choices for entertainment and activities will remain under control of an independent panel that runs the festival.
But those decisions must fit within the spending plan that town leaders are developing, Mayor Hardy King said. The panel “will still be doing their thing but within constraints to be set,” he said.
Steady red ink led festival officials to ask town officials for a subsidy of an unspecified amount to prepare for next fall’s gathering. Town Hall chipped in nearly $100,000 to cover deficits during the past two years, officials say.
Commission members are looking at increasing income by adding sponsors and cutting a variety of expenses. King has suggested a small entry fee for the two-day event.
It may be possible for the festival to operate without town aid, Luther said.
Councilman Barry Walker predicts the festival will rebound. “We’re going to build,” he said. “The Okra Strut can get things in order and go.”
Council members split 2-2 on keeping Hoots – wife of Councilman Harvey Hoots – to manage the festival, a job that pays $1,000 per month.
Walker and Councilman Paul Younginer favored it, saying her experience is invaluable. Condom and King opposed it, with her husband ineligible to take part in the decision.
Town Hall may find that running the festival is a challenge, Luther said.
“Doing it is a different animal and I don’t think anyone at the town is ready to handle that,” he said.