City Commission holds Shrimp Festival Workshop

Submitted by Eric Bartelt

City Hall 6

On Monday, August 19th, the Fernandina Beach City Commission held a Shrimp Festival Workshop to review the festival’s current financial statement, as well as the franchise agreement between the City and the Festival. The workshop was suggested by Mayor Sarah Pelican at the Commission’s Budget Workshop on August 12th, in order to help resolve questions about the Shrimp Festival’s request to have the City pay the annual $33,000 trash removal expense for the festival.

Despite the City’s having paid the trash removal expense for a number of years, Commissioners Gass and Corbett, and Mayor Pelican had, at the previous Budget Workshop, questioned whether the City should continue this practice, while Commissioners Filkoff and Boner had expressed support for continuing the payment.

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Dawn Lunt, Shrimp Festival Treasurer

Presenting the Festival’s financial statement to the Commission was Dawn Lunt, the Shrimp Festival Treasurer and Merchandise Director. Also in attendance from the Festival Committee was Mark Deaton, Shrimp Festival Chairman and Entertainment Director, and Sandy Price, Executive Director. Ms. Lunt spent nearly an hour answering detailed questions from the Commissioners about the Festival’s revenue and expenses. According to Ms. Lunt, the Shrimp Festival relies on the City to cover the cost of the trash cleanup – without it, the Festival would show a net loss for the year.

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Sandy Price, Executive Director Isle of 8 Flags Shrimp FestivalPrice has served for many years as an unpaid volunteer.

The question of compensation for Ms. Price was also discussed, since it had been raised during the August 12th Budget Workshop. At that workshop, Commissioner Corbett noted that he understood Ms. Price was going to be receiving a salary of $50,000 per year. If that was the case, Corbett had said, they (the Shrimp Festival) had plenty of money and that the City should therefore not have to pay for the trash cleanup. Shrimp Festival Chairman Mark Deaton had then set the record straight, saying that the $50,000 figure was incorrect and the correct amount was $2,300 per month.

Ms. Lunt explained that, in fact, the Shrimp Festival’s bylaws required that the Executive Director’s position be a paid position. Ms. Price added that while she had taken a minimal salary or $100 per month early on, she soon gave that up and has served as an unpaid volunteer since. The Commission discussed what would happen if Ms. Price were to leave, and Ms. Lunt said if that were to occur, the Festival would have to hire a paid director. Given her experience and minimal compensation, Commissioner Corbett advised that the Shrimp Festival Committee should try to retain Ms. Price.

According to Ms. Lunt, the $33,000 paid to Advance Disposal for trash cleanup is offset by the expenses the City bills to the Shrimp Festival for police, fire and maintenance, which totals about $25,000, resulting in an $8,000 net cost to the City. Ms. Lunt also referred to the $17 million impact the Shrimp Festival has on the local economy.

Ms. Lunt and Ms. Price were also questioned about sponsorships. Several companies contribute money to the Shrimp Festival and are thus considered sponsors. Ms. Lunt said that while the Festival continually looks for new sponsors and receives offers from potential sponsors all the time, they accept only those that are in keeping with what the Festival wants to accomplish and project. Ms. Lunt explained that the Festival’s “driving force” has always been to help non-profits, not help for-profit companies fund themselves and advertise.

Mayor Pelican indicated she had had a conversation with an individual at Advance Disposal, who said Advanced Disposal would be “very interested in becoming a sponsor.” Two other companies had also expressed interest in becoming sponsors, and their names were passed on to Ms. Lunt at the end of her presentation.

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Larry Myers speaks in support of Shrimp Festival funding

Former City Manager Larry Myers, speaking as a member of the public, addressed the Commission. He cautioned the Commission, saying, “You’ve got to be kind of careful here because you’re playing kind of dicey, and you don’t want to lose this festival. It’s a great, great event, it’s professionally managed, and it’s got a good committee.” He added, “You’ve got to spend a little bit of money to make a lot of money.” He speculated that Ms. Price and the Shrimp Festival Committee could go to another city and say that they have a proven festival that generates $17 million a year in Fernandina Beach, and that they could bring it to their city and put it on there. Mr. Myers concluded by saying, “You don’t want that to happen. You want this festival to stay here and shine.”

Ms. Lunt asked that since the Shrimp Festival reimburses the City for the cost of police, fire and maintenance workers, was that factored into the City’s budget? Commissioner Gass then pointed out that by working at the Shrimp Festival, those workers aren’t doing their regular city work. Ms. Lunt responded by saying that if the Shrimp Festival wasn’t paying for those workers, the City would be paying them regardless. She also said that the city contract with Advanced Disposal was for a set amount, which the Shrimp Festival had no control over, and that maybe the City should seek proposals from other disposal companies that might be more competitive. And she wondered whether any of the other festivals that occur in the city, such as the Blues Festival and the Petanque Tournament, reimburse the City for trash collection. Mayor Pelican said the Commission would want to look into that.

Commissioner Filkoff weighed in, saying the Shrimp Festival “…honors our history, honors our community, and is known as a Fernandina Beach event.” She pointed out that “by supporting an event with an economic impact of $17 million, that means businesses benefit $17 million worth. When they pay their taxes on their businesses, which benefit from this, that means our residents don’t pay as much tax, and that’s the way it all gets connected.”

Commissioner Ed Boner File Photo
Commissioner Ed Boner
File Photo

Commissioner Boner asked if the Shrimp Festival was planning on keeping the parade on Saturday.  Mark Deaton, Festival Chairman, responded by saying that “more than anything” the parade was moved to Saturday in response to safety concerns raised by the Fire Chief and other City officials. He explained that there have been accidents, including a child’s death, in parades in other cities due to those parades extending into darkness. According to Deaton, in its earlier days the parade had only 18 floats. It now has over 100 and with a starting time of 6:00 p.m., “…you’re going to go into darkness, and it’s just outgrown that timeframe.”

Another member of the public, Bob Ramshaw, General Manager of the downtown Hampton Inn and Suites also addressed the Commission, detailing the extensive economic impact of the Shrimp Festival that he sees as the hotel manager. He concluded by saying, “I’d hate to see anything disrupt this. This is a huge event for the city.”

Commissioner Gass then tried to reassure everyone that the Commission was not trying to de-fund the Festival. We’re trying to help it “…spread its wings and grow. 18 year olds all need to move out of the house. When you grow up, you move on.” “There’s going to be a shortfall in the budget, so we’re looking for places to not have that happen…” Ms. Price responded by saying that the Festival is always looking to grow but that they were also looking to make the Festival better, not just bigger, and that they were always looking for more sponsors.

Citizen Lynn Williams spoke in support of Commissioner Filkoff’s point about how important the Shrimp Festival is to the community. He also proposed that the Festival consider charging admission, which would allow it to do bigger and better events, instead of just trying to get more money out current sponsors.

Commissioner Pat Gass
File Photo

Commissioner Gass then brought up the franchise agreement the Festival has with the city. A section of the agreement calls for a review of the franchise if the Commission receives a high volume of complaints. Commissioner Gass asked if such a review had ever been conducted, especially in light of this year’s “outcry about the t-shirts and the parade.” Apparently, Commissioners had received several phone calls and emails asking how the Commission could allow the Shrimp Festival to change the parade from Thursday to the preceding Saturday. Commissioner Gass acknowledged that since the Shrimp Festival is an independent non-profit organization, the City does not control how the Shrimp Festival Committee operates its festival, including how it schedules the parade. She suggested, however, that there should be a review so the public can have some input into the Festival.

Commissioner Boner agreed that an annual evaluation was reasonable in order to allow public input and an opportunity for the public to be able to communicate with the Festival, so long as it wasn’t used as a means for the Commission to say they are unhappy with the Festival. Ms. Price responded that the Festival holds such an annual review, to which City department heads are invited, and the festival provides notice and minutes to department heads of the Festival Committee’s meetings. She said, “The door is always open.” And that they try to work with the City staff and run the Festival in a way that is for the public good.

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Commissioner Arlene Filkoff
File Photo

Commissioner Filkoff noted that in the Festival’s communications, such things as the parade date and t-shirt design are not typically discussed with the City, whereas issues about public safety, which are within the City’s bailiwick, are. She also pointed out that if the City doesn’t give the Festival any money, then she couldn’t see what role the City has to play in how the Festival operates, other than in issues of public safety. She didn’t see it as the Commission’s job, for example, to determine when the parade was going to take place. City Manager Gerrity agreed, say that when he attended one of the Shrimp Festival’s meetings, no effort was made on his part, or on the part of other city officials present, to micromanage the Shrimp Festival’s operations, and that the City wouldn’t want to get into that. He, and the police and fire department personnel present, were only there to discuss public safety.

The workshop concluded with Ms. Price saying the Shrimp Festival Committee had been considering issues, such as the parade date, and other safety concerns, for a number of years.

The Commissioners seemed to all agree on one thing – the Workshop was extremely valuable and they learn a great deal about how the Shrimp Festival operates.

The day after the Workshop, Ms. Price revealed that she would be departing the Shrimp Festival at the end of September. With her departure, a new chapter will begin for the Shrimp Festival.

Editor’s Note:  Eric Bartelt retired as a corporate design consultant and moved  to Fernandina Beach in 2004.  His previously lived in Wisconsin.  Since Eric’s arrival in Fernandina Beach, he spends his time volunteering, and playing soccer.  We thank Eric for his contribution to the Fernandina Observer.

August 21, 2013 8:25 a.m.