By Craig Lord –
In a unanimous decision, the Westboro BIA Board of Directors voted to utilize its opt-out clause in its two-year contract agreement as the title sponsor of Westfest. The vote was held during the most recent BIA board meeting in early July, even as the positive feedback from the latest iteration of Westfest was still flowing in.
Elaina Martin, who has worked with the Westboro BIA to produce the event since its inception, says she was “very shocked” to hear the BIA wanted to end the relationship.
“This was one of the most successful Westfests ever. The Board of Directors of the BIA just decided they wanted to do something different with their marketing budget,” says Martin.
The board and Martin recently renegotiated a two-year contract for Westfest in Westboro, with an opt-out clause included for both parties after the first year. The renegotiated contract meant a reduced festival sponsorship, down from $150,000 to $125,000, but still represented 65 per cent of the BIA’s annual marketing budget. After year one, the Board of Directors decided that amount was still too steep to pay for an ever-growing festival.
Elaina Martin notes that nearly all of the money she receives from the BIA goes towards closing down the streets to have the party. Other sponsorships are required to pay for artists’ hotel rooms, stages, and other Westfest necessities.
“It’s not because there was a problem with the festival itself. It’s simply just we have other initiatives we need to pursue,” says Dan Hwang, chairman of the Westboro BIA Board of Directors.
Hwang says that putting 65 per cent of the budget into a two-day event was difficult to justify. The board would like to branch out into other initiatives: year-round programming for the new Winston Square installation and continued streetscape beautification efforts, for example. In other words, more long-term projects rather than one big short-term boost.
“We still want to do a summer festival in order to highlight all of the things that are great about Westboro, and to try to achieve the most benefit for our members. We’re just trying to make the financially responsible decision,” says Hwang.
Business improvement areas in the city are funded entirely by local merchants who pay a levy to the city for registration and accordingly receive that levy back in the form of an annual budget. The city acts as the accountant, but all funds come from the members. The mandate of a BIA, then, is to use that money to market and promote businesses in the area, and divide their budget to what the board feels will provide the greatest return on investment.
Martin says that she isn’t soured on relations with the BIA — realizing it was strictly a financial decision — and is still open to renegotiating. She says she feels bad for the business owners who didn’t have a say in the process.
“It’s a pretty big deal to a lot of people on the street there,” Martin says.
Many businesses in the Westboro BIA are upset with terminating sponsorship. An email was sent from the BIA board to its members on July 10 outlining the decision and justifications, but a number of businesses didn’t receive the email and heard about the outcome much later in the summer when Martin sent a farewell message of her own.
Sheba Schmidt, owner of West End Kids, says she was dismayed when she finally heard what had happened.
“They made a decision on an event that is huge revenue for us,” she says. “I was so hot with frustration.”
Along with Don Cogan, owner of Whispers restaurant, she began contacting other businesses to rally their support behind Westfest. Many owners responded to throw their support behind the campaign.
“I was not happy,” says Valerie Ventola, owner of The Cuckoo’s Nest. “Westfest was a really good income generator for us, and we also get a lot of visibility from all over Ottawa. So we end up getting additional sales for weeks afterwards.”
Tracy Smith, the owner of Brio (and whose husband, Gilbert Russell, is on the Board of Directors), says she enjoys Westfest but sees the benefit of more regular programming.
“It would be nice to have some of that… maybe spread over the year, to have more impact,” she says.
The Village Quire owner Molly van der Schee agrees, but wants to see proof that other events can be done successfully before getting rid of a sure-thing in Westfest.
“Westfest puts Westboro on the map,” says van der Schee.
Not all hope is lost, however. Councillor Jeff Leiper recently facilitated a meeting between Cogan, Schmidt and representatives of the board. Leiper does sit on the board, but says his role is representative of the voters of Kitchissippi, and as such abstained from putting his vote into an affair solely between the BIA board and its members.
“I’m urging the BIA board to take that reconsideration very seriously, but I’m not advocating that they do or not. I’m just making sure they’re listening,” Leiper says. He notes, though, that Westfest has been a substantial community-building initiative for years.
After Cogan and Schmidt voiced the concerns they’d gathered from residents, the board agreed to reconsider its decision and gather more direct feedback from BIA members in a forum soon to be determined.
“They listened to us loud and clear,” Schmidt says. “Westboro members have a fighting chance.”
The original plan saw the BIA seek proposals for a new, smaller budget festival. Westfest Inc. was welcome to apply to the request, but Martin says she was not open to that option. This plan remains in place until the board chooses an alternate approach, or reinstates Westfest’s sponsorship.
Martin says that while she has been actively seeking a new venue for Westfest, she’s encouraged by the support and would like to see a speedy resolution to keep the festival in its original home.
“I’m not going to be the one that lets them down, that’s for sure,” she says.
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