News: Council weighs whether to award FMMF $25,000 grant again

Joel Oliphint

In 2014, a few months before the inaugural Fashion Meets Music Festival, the mayor's office told theDispatch, "The city doesn't plan to contribute money to the festival."

And yet,Columbus Business First recently reported that Columbus City Council planned to award a $25,000 grant to the fest's operating company, FM2, LLC. The legislation, which council first heard on Sept. 26, would authorize the expenditure "to assist the marketing of this event and to grow economic development in the City of Columbus and surrounding communities."

Council previously awarded FMMF the same amount in November of 2015 ("a one-time grant agreement," the ordinance stated), but that expenditure passed mostly unnoticed, because this year's grant legislation came as a surprise to many in the community given the lack of funding for other for-profit festivals in Columbus, not to mention the track record of FMMF, which has been mired in controversy since its debut in 2014.

A quick recap: In FMMF's first year, using a confusing model of free and ticketed events, the festival booked R&B singer R. Kelly as its headliner, despite Kelly's long history of legal troubles related to sexual assault. When sponsors backed out and bands dropped off in protest, the fest canceled Kelly's appearance.

In 2015, FMMF returned with a ticketed model and more modest ambitions, but soon after announcing the lineup, the fest had to recant one of its headliners, Father John Misty.

This year the festival canceled several local DJ performances three days before the event, telling the DJs in an email, "We cannot accommodate your tech needs nor have the funds to cover them." And in the last two years, attendance for the Arena District event appeared to be significantly lower than expected. (FMMF did not respond to requests for attendance numbers;Alive reviews of the festival from 2015 and '16 noted sparse attendance, to the point that some performers commented on the thin crowds from the stage.)

At the City Council meeting on Monday, Oct. 3, council voted unanimously to postpone the measure indefinitely. Still, the in-limbo legislation, along with last year's $25,000 grant, raise questions about how the city contributes to for-profit festivals and why some festivals receive money while others don't.

Councilman Michael Stinziano, who co-sponsored the FMMF legislation with Jaiza Page, said in a recent phone interview that since FMMF had received a grant the previous year, and since the cost of some of the city's rental facilities had gone up since 2015, a precedent had been established. "There were commitments made prior to when I got there, and I think everyone agrees we need to have a much better process [of funding festivals]," he said. "It's unclear why some festivals get funding and others don't, other than precedence. I know there's a commitment from the [Recreation and Parks Department] and from council members that that gets addressed."

Council has used the Neighborhood Initiatives subfund this year to allocate money to other fests, such as the Asian Festival ($5,000) and Red White & Boom ($10,000, plus $15,000 from the Recreation and Parks operating fund), but organizers behind big-name, for-profit festivals like PromoWest Fest and Breakaway Festival said they received no money from the city.

Independents' Day has received funding from the Greater Columbus Arts Council over the years, but receives no money directly from the city. And ComFest, which awards its own grants to local community organizations, prides itself on not receiving any corporate or city funds.

Scott Stienecker, president and CEO of PromoWest Productions, said he never asked the city for money. "To do a real festival costs around $4 million. A $25,000 grant wouldn't be something we'd go looking for," he said. "A real festival costs real money."

"If there are credits and grants available, there's no reason why we shouldn't be taking advantage of them," said Zach Ruben, managing partner and CEO of Prime Social Group, the promotions company behind Breakaway and other local concerts. "At the same time, I don't go around seeking ways to cut corners to operate our business."

To settle on the $25,000 number, City Council used a study by consultant Bill LaFayette of Regionomics. In 2015, the report estimated that FMMF would generate $51,800 from income taxes and lodging taxes and estimated the total economic impact of the fest at $5.6 million. But the study is also dated Jan. 31, 2015, meaning all of the estimates are based on projections provided by FMMF, which, according to the study, didn't keep track of out-of-town attendees. The study also said FMMF projected a growth of 25 percent per year.

LaFayette notes in the study that his estimates "depend on a variety of assumptions" and are not to be regarded as precise. In the absence of actual attendance numbers, the report uses festivals like Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati and Forecastle Festival in Louisville to estimate FMMF's 2015 and 2016 impact.

PromoWest Productions purchased Bunbury in 2014, and Stienecker said attendance at Bunbury hit 56,000 in 2015 and 43,000 in 2016. The Regionomics study indicated attendance at the three-day, combination free/ticketed version of FMMF in 2014 was 60,000. While no official numbers are available for FMMF attendance at the scaled-back, two-day version of the festival from the past two years, some sources estimate attendance at this year's event in the low- to mid-thousands.

"When we talked it was all projections," Stinziano said. "I know [FMMF] didn't meet the projections they desired. … I think there's a clear recognition that we need to get our hands around how we're funding for-profit and not-for-profit festivals and holding them accountable for what the numbers are, not just projections."

"Anyone can pop up a festival here in town, claim they're bringing in crazy tax revenue for the city and qualify for a grant, when it might not be the actual truth," said Breakaway's Ruben. "You can't base it off projected numbers. I can project that I'm going to do a billion dollars in sales next year for Breakaway, but when we only do $2 million, what's the penalty for that?"

The underlying issue behind attendance and funding is a festival's reputation. "As its reputation grows," LaFayette's report stated, "FMMF will generate an increasing amount of regional and national press that will create a positive impression of Columbus as a vibrant city even among those who do not attend the festival. Visitors who are drawn to the festival and have a positive experience may return, and some may even consider relocating to Columbus."

When asked whether a festival's standing within the community should be considered, Stinziano said that while it isn't his role to decide which festivals are better than others, reputation "was part of the discussion with Fashion Meets Music Festival. If we have a consistent, standard process in place, I think that would be factored in, and different elements of what creates that reputation."

"We're very bullish on all the festivals, recognizing some have created stronger community ties than others," Stinziano continued. "But, at the end of the day, what would be best for everyone is a standard procedure that's going to be fair and transparent. ... I think [the grant] was the right thing to do under the circumstance. But I think we need to create better circumstances."