River­fest runs dry; board sus­pends it

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - RACHEL HER­ZOG AND EMMA PET­TIT AND KALLY PATZ

Af­ter 40 years on the banks of the Arkansas River, the state’s largest mu­sic fes­ti­val is no longer above water.

The River­fest’s board of di­rec­tors re­leased a state­ment Tues­day announcing the event’s sus­pen­sion — and that of its sis­ter event Springfest — cit­ing ris­ing costs, weather and com­pe­ti­tion.

“With our bills paid, and our heads held high, we are clos­ing our doors,” River­fest board mem­ber Cheddy Wig­gin­ton said in the state­ment.

While out­lin­ing the large losses and de­clin­ing at­ten­dance the fes­ti­val faced in re­cent years, River­fest Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor DeAnna Ko­rte, who has worked for River­fest Inc. for 20 years, got choked up ex­plain­ing the de­ci­sion.

“I’m still in a lit­tle bit of shock. It’s sad,” she said. “River­fest has al­ways been about the fam­ily. It’s been about peo­ple com­ing to­gether to do some­thing fun and good for the com­mu­nity.” Ko­rte said the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s non­profit sta­tus and bud­get of $2.6 mil­lion made it dif­fi­cult to book big­ger acts. “That may sound like a lot, but in the world of mu­sic festivals, it is a shoe­string bud­get,” she said in the state­ment.

Michael Mar­ion, the gen­eral man­ager for the Ver­i­zon Arena in North Lit­tle Rock since 1997, said this sus­pen­sion comes at a time when more and more mu­sic festivals have popped up across the coun­try. Dif­fer­ent events pull from the same tal­ent pool, Mar­ion said, which drives up prices to book artists.

Sev­eral other festivals folded in 2016, in­clud­ing Wakarusa in Ozark and BayFest in Mo­bile, Ala. Ko­rte said River­fest and sim­i­larly sized events had a hard time com­pet­ing with big-name festivals in the re­gion such as Mem­phis in May and Bon­na­roo in Manch­ester, Tenn. En­ter­tain­ers re­quir­ing a 50 per­cent de­posit in ad­vance also made things dif­fi­cult fi­nan­cially, Ko­rte said. The fes­ti­val has lost money for the past few years, with a net loss of $300,000 in 2017, Ko­rte said.

Ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent IRS Form 990s avail­able, River­fest lost about $92,000 in 2013 and al­most $187,000 in 2014. Ac­cord­ing to the 2014 form, Ko­rte re­ceived more than $102,000 in re­portable com­pen­sa­tion from River­fest Inc. and re­lated or­ga­ni­za­tions for that year.

A LOSS FOR DOWN­TOWN

River­fest at­ten­dance in 2017 was about 125,000 peo­ple, with 30,000 peo­ple at­tend­ing Springfest, a free, fam­ily-ori­ented event that be­gan in 2016 af­ter River­fest be­gan to tar­get the 18- to 50-year-old de­mo­graphic, Ko­rte said. River­fest had an es­ti­mated 140,000 at­ten­dees in 2016, with 15,000 at­tend­ing Springfest, and 220,000 at­ten­dees in 2015 be­fore the fam­ily por­tion was bro­ken off into its own event.

In to­tal, River­fest con­trib­uted $1 mil­lion in pro­ceeds to the city, which in­cludes re­pair­ing fences in pavil­ions in River­front Park and a new roof on the First Se­cu­rity Am­phithe­atre.

The fes­ti­val had at its height an es­ti­mated an­nual eco­nomic foot­print of $33 mil­lion on the city, ac­cord­ing to the state­ment.

“River­fest’s 40-year run in Lit­tle Rock has been a tremen­dous des­ti­na­tion event, cre­at­ing a sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic im­pact in Cen­tral Arkansas,” Lit­tle Rock Con­ven­tion and Vis­i­tors Bureau Pres­i­dent and CEO Gretchen Hall said in a state­ment.

Bob Ma­jor, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the North Lit­tle Rock Con­ven­tion & Vis­i­tors Bureau, said River­fest filled up ho­tels along on both sides of the Arkansas River, and the event’s sus­pen­sion would be a loss for busi­nesses in both cities. Nei­ther Ko­rte nor Mar­ion at­trib­uted the 2016 de­ci­sion to split off Springfest as a fac­tor in River­fest’s fi­nan­cial trou­bles.

Ko­rte said crime was not a fac­tor ei­ther, though she said peo­ple have become gen­er­ally wary of large crowds in the past few years be­cause of ter­ror­ist at­tacks such as the Bos­ton Marathon bomb­ing in 2013. Ko­rte said the fes­ti­val sold tick­ets to peo­ple in 40 states in 2017 and drew peo­ple who might not oth­er­wise visit down­town Lit­tle Rock into the restau­rants and shops near River­front Park.

Josh Qu­at­tle­baum, head brewer at Dam­goode Pies, said the restau­rant’s out­door pa­tio was booked a week in ad­vance for this year’s River­fest, and the restau­rant made an ex­tra $18,000 to $20,000 that week­end. Stickyz owner Su­zon Aw­brey said her bar made from 25 to 30 per­cent more on fes­ti­val week­ends. “It was al­ways crazy,” she said. “The good kind of crazy.”

But Noel Fer­gu­son, as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager at Gus’s World Fa­mous Fried Chicken, said busi­ness was so bad dur­ing this year’s fes­ti­val that the restau­rant had planned to close for the next one.

“You know, [to] save on our light bill,” he said.

MOV­ING FOR­WARD

River­fest be­gan in Au­gust 1978 when the Ju­nior League of Lit­tle Rock en­gaged the Amer­i­can Wind Sym­phony. It was called the Sum­mer Arts Fes­ti­val and was held at Mur­ray Park. When the fes­ti­val changed its name and out­grew its lo­ca­tion, it moved down­town, and the need for per­ma­nent staff and an ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor arose in 1987, ac­cord­ing to the state­ment.

The fes­ti­val marked the be­gin­ning of Lit­tle Rock sum­mers for gen­er­a­tions of fam­i­lies, Mayor Mark Stodola said in a state­ment.

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