City Commission to review Free State Festival's $100,000 funding request; arts center director says event will be canceled if city doesn't agree

Time is running out for next year’s Free State Festival.

City commissioners on Tuesday will be asked to approve the Lawrence Arts Center’s request for $100,000. If festival organizers don’t receive an answer by then, the 2016 Free State Festival, tentatively slated for June 20-26, will be canceled.

That’s the line Lawrence Arts Center CEO Susan Tate drew in an Aug. 10 letter, which asked for $100,000 in transient guest tax funds — a jump from $60,000 in 2015 and $20,000 in 2014 — to support the festival.

The guest tax is what overnight guests pay to stay in a Lawrence hotel room. Currently that tax is 6 percent.

Tate said Monday that the request isn’t the result of a “shortfall” on the festival’s part. Instead, organizers are coping with a decrease in grant funding and an increased budget for next year’s festival, she said.

Based on a yearlong internal analysis, organizers have increased the 2016 budget to $400,500. Expenses for the 2015 Free State Festival totaled about $335,000.

According to Tate’s letter, the city-assisted funds would go toward marketing ($20,000), musicians’ fees ($50,000) and outdoor production costs ($30,000) for the festival.

“We are increasing the overall budget because we think it’s an important time to have even greater access to visual and performing arts in our community and the region, and make a greater investment in artists and economic development,” Tate said. “To perform live music, create art installations, to show films — we’re attempting to keep as many of those events free and open to the public as possible.”

As part of its 2016 budget, the city has created a grant process for events to seek out transient guest tax dollars. But the program, which has a total budget of $150,000, is only in beginning talks and hasn’t yet begun accepting applications.

That’s why the Free State Festival is “between a rock and a hard place” right now, City Commissioner Leslie Soden said. While she acknowledges the festival’s ability to generate revenue elsewhere across town, Soden said the Free State Festival didn’t bring in as many hotel bookings as she’d like.

“The Free State Festival is a great event, but these dollar amounts are all over the map,” she said, expressing worries over the nearly doubled funding request. “There’s a concern that we would put more money into a project (that) wouldn’t necessarily generate it back.”

Funding from the National Endowment for the Arts assisted the festival in its first two years as the expanded Free State Festival, which originated as a small film festival and rebranded itself as a citywide, multidisciplinary event in 2014.

However, Tate said the NEA grant only covered two years. She’s also requested the city co-apply with the Arts Center on the upcoming NEA grant, a proposal that will also be discussed at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting.

If all goes to plan, Tate said the NEA funds from that application would go toward the 2017-2018 Free State Festival.

But for now, the Arts Center is remaining firm on its funding deadline. Delaying the decision any further, Tate said, would make planning for the 2016 Free State Festival too difficult.

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