By: Delray newspaper opinion staff
Delray Beach’s Garlic Festival is being pushed out of Delray Beach.
The 18-year-old event, which has been featured on the Food Network, regularly draws large crowds and raises needed funds for local schools and non-profits has been told to pack its bags as a result of a decision by a newly formed Special Events Task Force Advisory Committee—and pressure from members of the City Commission.
On Tuesday, at 6 p.m. the event’s founder and longtime producer Delray Beach Arts Inc. will appeal the decision to City Commissioners. Citizens who like the Garlic Fest need to speak up now.
Nancy Stewart-Franczak, president of Delray Beach Arts, Inc. and Festival Management Group, is asking supporters of the Garlic Festival and other downtown events to show up at City Hall to back her effort to keep the event on the grounds of Old School Square where it has been produced since 1998.
Stewart-Franczak says downtown events are under siege by a new events policy and cost structure that in many cases will triple costs. City officials say events must pay their way and are seeking what they call “full cost recovery” because in the past events did not pay the total cost of police, fire, public works and clean and safe personnel.
Event producers counter that the numbers are unrealistic and in some cases inflated and that their events drive economic development and property values which benefits the city directly and indirectly.
Stewart-Franczak worked with city officials on the new policy for close to a year, donating hundreds of hours to meetings and research. She was asked to be a test case for the new policy only to find that her volunteer work on the task force has turned around to bite her.
She is not the only one feeling the pinch. The Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce, Old School Square and smaller non-profits such as Aid to Victims of Domestic Assault are also finding that fees for their fundraising events are tripling. In addition, longtime private event producer Howard Alan– who has produced art shows in the downtown since the 90s– are finding themselves either on the wrong side of the policy or squeezed by the new cost structure. Howard Alan’s events have been popular with local merchants who say their business increases during his shows due to an increase in foot traffic.
A majority of commissioners directed staff to reign in events because they say they are inundated with complaints from residents. But a public records request of emails relating to events over the past year yielded less than 10 complaints. Commissioner Shelly Petrolia said she is often stopped at Publix by residents asking her to crack down on events. A recent poll, conducted for Delray Newspapers by Cherry Communications showed that 83 percent of registered Delray voters surveyed either attend or support events. The poll had an error rate of 4.9 percent and was conducted on a statistically relevant number of voters during the height of the season. The pollster has been used by elected officials to gauge public sentiment in recent elections.
Event producers, including the Chamber, FMG/Delray Beach Arts, Inc. and Old School Square, agreed to several reforms in an effort to mitigate the concerns of commissioners including eliminating road closures during Garlic Festival, containing events on the grounds of Old School Square, eliminating mechanized rides for children and agreeing to upgrade the quality of vendors. They feel their compromises are being ignored.
For many local organizations, events are an important source of fundraising. The Delray Affair is critical to the health and programming of the Chamber of Commerce, the recently held craft “Beerfest” at Old School Square raised $65,000 for Old School Square and Garlic Fest has raised over $585,000 for local organizations ranging from elementary schools and high school bands to children’s charities and the Boy Scouts.
The event is staffed by 15 local non-profits and over 500 volunteers who raise money for their organizations in exchange for their service. The event has been featured on The Food Network and has won dozens of awards.
Event producers argue that festivals also drive economic development by filling hotel rooms and introducing visitors to Delray Beach, many of whom come back to shop and dine. They also argue that the events are enjoyed by residents, an argument backed by our polling.
Festivals have also contributed greatly to the city’s vibrancy and property values, which continue to rise and lead other cities in Palm Beach County.
While some elected officials have questioned their economic development credentials, others have suggested the events move to other parts of the city including Congress Avenue. But event producers have explored that option and have found that no infrastructure exists to host the events and question why a downtown designed for gatherings is suddenly off-limits as a result of new rules and an onerous cost structure.
Should there be event reform?
Quality should prevail over quantity.
As for costs, certainly they need to be looked at but a cost structure that puts events out of business seems overly harsh and unnecessary. The city needs to consider the benefits of events as well as their costs. And there are benefits, arguing otherwise is plain wrong.
It seems as if event producers have made a good faith effort to mitigate concerns and inconveniences. They should be thanked not chased out of town.