Westboro Village BIA opts out of Westfest sponsorship

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 a BIA board meeting in early July, 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.

Elaina Martin, founder and producer of Westfest, is looking for a new venue despite having called Westboro home for over a decade. Photo by Ted Simpson
Elaina Martin, founder and producer of Westfest, is looking for a new venue despite having called Westboro home for over a decade. Photo by Ted Simpson

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 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.

The BIA now plans to hold a request for proposals (RFP) for a new summer festival. Organizers, including Martin and Westfest, will be welcome to submit their proposals for an event with a more modest budget but in the same spirit of celebrating Westboro.

BIA board member Gilbert Russell says that a comparable summer festival in Westboro will be successful not because of the name, but because of the location.

“People love this place, whether they live here, or come here to shop, or come here for that celebration. I think that brand hasn’t gone away,” he says.

Martin 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 out a farewell message.

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.” Schmidt also mentions that she plans on submitting an application to join the board.

Along with Don Cogan, owner of Whispers restaurant, she began contacting other businesses to rally their support behind Westfest. Many owners responded by throwing their support behind the campaign, and Schmidt says she continues to collect signatures to that end. She also mentions that she plans on submitting an application to join the board.

“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, owner of Brio, says she enjoys Westfest but sees room for improvement.

“I think, as Westboro, we shouldn’t put all the dollars in one event… and it’s not clear how well that benefited everyone as a whole,” she says. “It would be nice to have some of that… maybe spread over the year, to have more impact.”

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.

According to the BIA board, approximately 30,000 unique visitors attended Westfest this year.

Councilor Jeff Leiper recently facilitated a meeting between Cogan, Schmidt and representatives of the board to present the opposition of members who were unhappy with the decision. 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.

After Cogan and Schmidt voiced the concerns they’d gathered, the board agreed to gather more direct feedback from BIA members. Russell says that the board visited merchants up and down the street in recent weeks to discuss with independent owners the rationale behind the decision and hear their thoughts on what directions to take now.

“We are hearing pros and cons to the decision. There is an RFP, and all that we’re hearing is getting factored into that,” Russell says. “It’s not veering off of what the neighbourhood wants. If anything, it’s intensifying what the neighbourhood wants.”

Details of the RFP are being established now and will be available in the coming weeks.

As for Westfest, the festival is certainly not cancelled. Martin has been in discussions with various potential partners to find a new location for the popular street party as soon as possible.

This is an updated version of a story we first broke here on Kitchissippi.com. For the WVBIA’s response, click here. For letters to the editor click here.

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