Mayfest: Maybe Not

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Posted August 26, 2009 by JEFF PRINCE in News

Depending on whom you ask, the city of Fort Worth’s decision to cancel this year’s Mayfest just two hours before it was set to begin was either an over-reaction made in the wake of a misunderstood swine flu epidemic or a brave move that put public safety above profits.

feat_1Either way, Mayfest lost a small fortune. The nonprofit group that organizes the popular four-day event is now struggling to stay afloat. And the beloved festival itself, held every year since 1973, is tottering on the edge of extinction.

Mayfest Inc.’s board of directors met on Tuesday and decided to keep the tradition alive. Mayfest 2010 is in the works. Whether the festival survives beyond then depends on the current leadership’s ability to raise money, cut costs, build up a reserve fund, and increase donations to its charitable beneficiaries. “This is a very important year in the history of Mayfest,” said the group’s marketing manager, Shannon Baumgardner.

Should the event die, don’t blame swine flu or city decision makers. Mayfest was experiencing growing pains prior to this year’s cancellation. Inconsistent leadership and steep spending on the event in previous years meant little money was making its way to organizations that receive annual donations from the proceeds: Streams and Valleys Inc., The Junior League of Fort Worth Inc., and the city’s Parks and Community Services Department. Those groups then use those proceeds to support river and community projects.

Mayfest enjoyed a banner year in 2008, reporting huge crowds and $1.4 million in revenues. But, afterward, Mayfest Inc. donated only $56,000: less than 1 percent of its revenues. The paltry donations appear to fly in the face of Mayfest Inc.’s stated purpose to raise funds for community nonprofit programs and to showcase the Trinity River.

“That was one of those years where lack of oversight and attention to the budget really hurt the festival,” said Adelaide Leavens, executive director of Streams and Valleys Inc., a nonprofit organization created in 1969 to beautify the Trinity River near downtown.

As concern about the low donations grew, the Mayfest board picked a new executive director, Elizabeth Basham, who handpicked a small staff to oversee festival planning, keep expenses down, and increase donations. “We have to be fiscally responsible,” she said.

Basham cut expenses in 2009 and was banking on a breakout year in terms of revenue and donations, but then the swine flu scare hit Texas. A subsequent concert designed to raise money to save Mayfest instead lost $5,000 and put the event even closer to going belly up.

Basham and her staff have since implemented the “1,000-100-100 campaign”: They’re asking 1,000 people to give $100 within 100 days to raise a quick $100,000. They’ll add this to the festival’s $200,000 reserve fund and hold a scaled-back version of Mayfest in 2010. But if a catastrophic weather event (recall the hailstorm of 1995?), or four days of rain, or another pandemic comes along, then the family-oriented party on the banks of the Trinity River will probably remain only as a fond memory.

In the days leading up to Mayfest, the swine flu outbreak had many Texas cities on edge. State officials along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency. On April 30, three suspected cases of swine flu and one confirmed case prompted the Fort Worth Independent School District to close all district schools for a week and to advise students to stay home to avoid contact with large groups of possibly contagious children.

Mayfest was set to begin that same day, but Fort Worth Parks and Community Services Director Richard Zavala issued a letter at noon saying “the city has decided to cancel this year’s Mayfest event, as well as several other events this weekend” at the urging of Tarrant County health officials.

feat_2The county recommended closing outdoor activities involving children, but made no blanket command. Arlington kept its schools open and didn’t cancel the Texas Rangers ballgames or Six Flags Over Texas, both outdoor events that typically attract children.

Fort Worth followed the county’s recommendation — to a degree.

“The mayor and I made the decision to cancel Mayfest and the Cinco de Mayo Celebration in coordination with various stakeholders based on the information available at the time and an explicit recommendation from the Tarrant County Public Health Authority,” City Manager Dale Fisseler said.

Not everything screeched to a halt. The Fort Worth zoo opened for business as usual. The city owns the zoo but allows the independent Fort Worth Zoological Association to operate the facility.

“The zoo never received a directive from the Fort Worth Parks and Community Services Department nor Tarrant County Public Health Department to close this spring,” zoo spokeswoman Remekca Owens said. “Therefore, we maintained our normal operating hours.”

The zoo was aware of the swine flu and the many discussions among city and county health officials but decided to stay open and let parents decide whether to keep their kids housebound.

“Unlike organized special events such as Mayfest, a day at the zoo does not entail a large concentration of crowds in a small area over a short period of time, in this case four days,” she said. “The zoo is 64 acres, which provides large amounts of space for guests of all ages to wander, and is open 365 days a year.”

Mayfest is held on 33 acres in
Trinity Park.

City officials faced a quandary when making their decision. It made little sense to cancel school and send kids home because of a possible pandemic and then allow a huge festival to be held on city property that would likely attract many of those same children.

Cancellation meant a loss of big bucks. Mayfest Inc. alone was poised to take a $500,000 hickey. The Junior League would have less money to support community projects, while Streams and Valleys and the city parks department would have less to channel back into river projects.

Mayfest officials were disappointed but understanding.

“We wanted to keep our patrons safe, and if the city wanted us to close that’s what we do,” Basham said. “At that point we did not know what the swine flu was capable of doing.”

Not everyone was so accepting. Residents e-mailed and phoned City Hall to complain about canceling a major fundraising event that benefits local groups.


feat_3“It was up to the entities to decide what they felt needed to be closed,” Tarrant County spokesman Marc Flake said. “Our primary interest was protecting the health of children. If the county’s health department recommends that you shut down, it’s hard not to, especially when the health of children is involved.”

A Junior League volunteer, who has children in public school and was disappointed about the closings and the Mayfest cancellation, understood the decisions. Allowing her kids to go to Mayfest “would have been the same as having them in school,” said the woman who asked not to be named in this article.

Some of her friends, however, questioned the city’s decision.

“I had friends who would ask me, ‘What is going on? This seems so stupid,’ ” she said of the Mayfest cancellation. “There was that sense of frustration, and it didn’t seem to make sense when nobody else was [closing events], but I think they understood the pickle the city was in. We’ll never know if it was much ado about nothing. We erred on the side of caution. What if we hadn’t closed down and then the contamination was severe?”

Dr. Sandra K. Parker, medical director for the Tarrant County Public Health Department, was the official who advised the Fort Worth officials that events like Mayfest and the public schools be shut down. But if the same swine flu situation happened now, closing down events and schools would not likely happen.

“We wouldn’t make that recommendation from what we know now,” she said. “But this flu epidemic was so new, and we didn’t know enough about it. We had to be cautious.”

“We know a lot more about it now,” Parker said. “But I would still say we made the right decision regarding Mayfest.”

Mayfest was well prepared for the swine flu. Volunteers had posted signage on the festival grounds urging patrons to wash their hands frequently and installed 40 hand-washing and sanitization stations.

The cancellation was unprecedented in Mayfest history. A lack of cancellation insurance meant the festival lost most of the money it had invested in the event on tents, fencing, electricity, and other infrastructure. “We were two hours away from opening, so all our expenses had been incurred,” said Linda Christie, a Mayfest board member.

Mayfest had barreled along for 36 years, closing early once in a while because of rain or hail but never canceling outright. The financial loss not only hurt the many vendors who sell food and refreshments, operate bounce houses, blow up balloons, paint faces, and perform on the stages, it threatened to wipe out the event forever.

But it’s hard to give up on a tradition. Board members decided this week that Mayfest would survive for at least another year, and, with any luck, regain its footing for years to come. “I feel very good about our staff and our board,” said Mayfest Inc. board member Harriet Harral. “I’m very hopeful. We’re working hard. The community has always loved Mayfest.”

April showers bring May flowers, as the old saying goes, but May can get pretty soggy itself. Rainfall has traditionally plagued Mayfest, and the festival’s debut wasn’t any different.

“Rock Musicians Drowned Out as Rain Drenches Mayfest” blared a Fort Worth Star-Telegram headline on May 7, 1973, after the inaugural event. Frequent rainouts would eventually prompt planners to expand from two days to four, simply to double the festival’s chances of escaping showers and earning more money.

“Rain-dampened Junior League spokeswomen said they were impressed at the thousands of hardy area residents who braved the two days of sharp, sometimes violent, weather to attend the festival,” the 1973 news article stated. “And they also said they have no intention of halting plans for future Mayfests.”

feat_4They were right. Several decades of rain, heat, and hail have yet to turn planners or patrons against the event that has evolved into spring’s most eagerly anticipated outdoor event. The 30,000 visitors at that initial Mayfest would increase nearly tenfold by the 2000s.

That initial festival was special — and long in the making. The series of events that led to its creation can be traced back to the 1949 flood that devastated downtown.

A May 16, 1949 thunderstorm swelled the Trinity River, destroyed levees, flooded about 50 city blocks, washed away houses, and caused millions of dollars in damages. One of the most lasting effects, however, was the river damage.

Businesses were remodeled. Houses were rebuilt. But the river slid into unsightliness. Its levees were eventually rebuilt and some of its channels straightened, but the man-made measures were designed for flood control, not beauty. Trash, dead trees, and a willy-nilly assortment of billboards littered the Trinity’s overgrown banks. People dumped everything from washing machines to cars into its polluted, shallow waters.

By the late 1960s, a group of concerned citizens that included wealthy community activist Nancy Lee Bass began looking at ways to beautify the river. They raised money for a study, and the San Francisco-based Halprin & Associates urban development group created a river redevelopment plan.

The Fort Worth City Council appointed many of those same residents to its newly created Streams and Valleys Committee, and by 1970 the group was well on its way to beautifying the river. They picked up litter and planted trees and foliage along the riverbanks. Meanwhile, the city built dams to raise water levels.

By 1973, the river was a relative paradise, with flowing water, hiking trails, and park areas. Streams and Valleys wanted to celebrate the transformation, and Junior League member Phyllis Tilley proposed an idea for a Trinity River Festival, also referred to as Mayfest, to lure residents to the area and to instill an appreciation for the river and its new accruements.

The Junior League sponsored the event and provided a chairman along with hundreds of volunteers to make the festival memorable. It was. A second festival was soon in the works. Other sponsors included Streams and Valleys, Tarrant Regional Water District, and the parks department.

Each year, a different Junior League member would take over as chairman, and each brought her own philosophy. “They had their own vision and their own strengths,” said Leavens, of Streams and Valleys. “And naturally they had their own weaknesses.”

Some excelled in fund raising, some were great planners, some had a knack for finding underwriters and in-kind services. Each year, someone would come in and, to a degree, recreate the wheel. “It was like having a large business with a new CEO every year,” Christie said.


feat_5Most chairmen weren’t inclined to scrimp on festival costs. The party was the priority. Getting people to Mayfest to have a good time, discover the river, and enjoy Trinity Park took precedence over generating money for the Junior League and other sponsors.

The nonprofit Mayfest Inc. was created in 1987, partly to shield the Junior League from liability but also to make the festival planning more consistent and to channel more money to the sponsoring groups. Each year, the Junior League and Streams and Valleys donate money to pay for the event, and then Mayfest Inc. returns that money and more in the form of donations afterward. Streams and Valleys Inc. builds trails, plants trees, and provides access to the Trinity River and its tributaries in Tarrant County. The Junior League provides money and more than 30,000 hours of volunteer service to local groups, particularly those assisting children. The parks department uses its Mayfest money to maintain
Trinity Park, its playground, and electricity and lighting.

The Mayfest board hired a couple of office assistants to work year-round on planning the event, reducing the demand on the Junior League volunteers. Changing times meant more women were returning to the workforce and being left with little time to volunteer year-round on Mayfest duties.

Mayfest reports it has donated $5.8 million to its sponsor groups since 1973, an average of about $165,000 a year. But donations have dwindled even as revenues increased in recent years. In 2004, Mayfest grossed $991,000. After expenses, only $82,000 was returned to the sponsors. In 2005, revenues jumped to $1.4 million, and donations more than doubled to $200,000. But donations fell to $130,000 in 2006, $129,000 in 2007, and then plummeted to $56,000 in 2008 despite revenues of $1.4 million.

Raising money for donations appeared to be taking a backseat to hosting a big, sprawling, kick-ass party to draw families to the Trinity River.

In the mid-2000s, Streams and Valleys began hosting its own fundraising event because it could no longer depend on the wild swings in donations from Mayfest. “We couldn’t create our budget not knowing if we were going to get $40,000 or $80,000,” Leavens said.

In 2007, Mayfest Inc. hired full-time managing director Patti Cox to oversee the festival and provide consistent leadership, boost efficiency, lower costs, and generate more money for donations. Then, 2008 came along and for the first time in the history of Mayfest, the Streams and Valleys group paid more to sponsor the event than it received in return. “We actually lost money in 2008,” Leavens said. “We made a $25,000 grant, and we received $20,000 back. That’s not what we’re in the business to do.”

She was excited about the hiring of Basham, who boasted an extensive business background in sales.

“[Basham] has been a volunteer for many years and was a member of the League and had a good grasp of how the volunteerism of the event works into it and also a real good sense of money and budget,” Leavens said. “More than anything else, she has a good understanding of the mission of the festival: to raise awareness for the river and be a good fundraiser for those three entities.”

Basham expanded Mayfest Inc.’s small staff from two to four part-time employees. They earn about $80,000 in salaries collectively but expect to more than offset that investment by decreasing the festival costs and generating more revenues and donations.

Then the swine flu interceded, and Mayfest Inc. suddenly found itself with no money coming in this year and not enough money in the bank to pay for next year’s event. But some vendors discounted or even forgave their bills in the hopes of helping Mayfest live to fight another day. “The community and our suppliers are backing us, and that made us fiscally able to carry on at this point,” Basham said.

The groups that have overseen Mayfest through the years are made up of committed volunteers, most of them women, and all of them firm believers in rolling up their sleeves and making things work. They plan to make the 2010 festival both cost-effective and fun, raise money for a reserve fund, increase donations, and keep the tradition alive. “We are taking Mayfest back to the basics,” Basham said.

The music stages will be featuring local — and cheaper — bands rather than the big-name national acts of years past. Beer vendors will begin serving drinks in cans rather than customized Mayfest cups, which will save several thousand dollars.

Reducing expenses means a rainout or cancellation won’t be as financially devastating.

“I’m hopeful for the future,” Leavens said. “Mayfest Inc. has got some great staff. The board is actively involved. There is a great deal of spirit to keep it moving on. From people talking to me, there is affection for Mayfest throughout the community.”


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