The Okra Strut is financially off stride and threatens to put even more strain on Irmo’s coffers if town officials aren’t careful.
The future of the annual festival came into question recently when Irmo officials learned that the 41-year-old gathering is near broke. Town officials said that while festival organizers had $14,000 in the bank, nearly all of it was earmarked for expected bills. The bottom line: The Okra Strut, which already receives an annual contribution from the town, needs even more help.
But Irmo officials should steer clear of pouring money into what could become a black hole, as other popular — but now defunct — Midlands festivals such as the 3 Rivers Musical Festival became over the years. It took six years and a sea of red ink that required one bailout after another from the city of Columbia before 3 Rivers was ended.
The Okra Strut has not been profitable since 2006. Some town officials say the problems stem from overspending and unrealistic revenue forecasts. The town has poured nearly $100,000 into the festival in the past two years to cover deficits.
We wish we could say that the Strut’s financial woes are simply a blip on the screen. But the reality is that while the Okra Strut is a signature event that brings laudable attention and people to Irmo, it is like most if not all festivals: They’re as much a drain on municipal coffers as they are an annual ritual that brings people together.
The Strut is run by an independent panel through a partnership with the town. It is among the most popular festivals in the Midlands and attracts about 50,000 visitors to the town of 12,000 residents.
But it is becoming too much of a burden. In addition to providing an annual subsidy, the town took the extreme step of developing a new 14-acre park, at a cost of $1.8 million, in large part to provide the festival a permanent home.
All that to now find that the Okra Strut is practically out of money and in need of even more revenue as well as possible spending cuts to stay alive. Festival organizers already have said they need money from the town just to begin making arrangements for the next event.
Some worry that Irmo eventually could be asked to pay the entire cost of the two-day gathering. But that should be a non-starter. Frankly, Irmo officials should be re-evaluating the relationship with the festival altogether.
A case could be made that public money shouldn’t be spent on festivals, which are not related to daily operations or service delivery.
In this era when revenue from taxes on alcohol sales, hospitality taxes and other pots of money generated locally are used to help boost tourism and commerce, it has come to be considered legitimate to spend some money on such events. But the amount given to these endeavors should be capped, and there absolutely should be no bailouts due to chronic deficits.
If Irmo officials decide to continue supporting the Okra Strut, they should stick to a reasonable amount and demand that organizers better manage the enterprise and live within the initial budget. If that can’t be done, then perhaps the town should bid the Okra Strut adieu.