On Events: Hit Pause & Create a Win

Garlic Fest has become a Delray tradition providing much needed funds to local non-profits and schools. Photo by VMA Studios courtesy from Garlic Festival website.

Garlic Fest has become a Delray tradition providing much needed funds to local non-profits and schools. Photo by VMA Studios courtesy from Garlic Festival website.

Sometimes you have to slow down to get it right.

The challenge and the beauty of local government is that you often know the people impacted by a particular vote. You can’t say that about other levels of government.

If you are a state legislator or a member of congress you vote far away from home and usually with your team–be it Republican or Democrat.

Most people in your district probably don’t even know what you’re doing. But on a local level, your neighbors know. And that’s a good thing.

You can’t hide in local government. Ideally it keeps you grounded and accountable. People know when you show up and when you don’t. They see how you treat people. They can see when you read a prepared statement, answer a text, roll your eyes at a speaker or fail to read the backup material.

If your kind, they notice that too. If you’re rude they see that as well. Chances are you are lecturing someone’s friend, a neighbor, or someone you see around town. So tone matters. A lot.

I don’t like what’s happening to special events in our town. I’m not alone.

I think the process has turned into a game of bait and switch and I think the opposition to events has been overstated. I think the costs have been too.

I’m not sure if it started out this way and I’m not sure there has been any sort of diabolical intent, but somewhere along the way this attempt to make the special event process better went off the rails or was co-opted by an agenda.

I think event producers and the organizations that host festivals volunteered in a good-faith effort to make things better; I don’t think they would’ve shown up to plan their demise.

I’ve seen polling numbers of registered voters in this city for over 20 years and events have always scored very high. I can’t imagine that two decades of polling by firms relied on by elected officials past and present would be that far off.

Sure, there are those who despise events. I heard from a few during my seven years in office. A few in particular have been impossible to please despite efforts to soothe their bruised sensibilities. At some point, you have to apologize and move on even if they won’t. As much as you may wish to, you simply can’t scratch every itch and you certainly can’t run a city based solely on the wishes of those who complain. There are others to consider too.

At some point you have to wonder why a business can’t make a crowded street full of pedestrians work for them. At some point you have to wonder why some people can’t just take one for the team because maybe the particular event works for someone else, benefits a non-profit or is a city tradition enjoyed by many. I think the point is when life gives you lemons make lemonade and if you can’t make lemonade, there’s always another day.

Tonight, the city commission may or may not decide the fate of the Garlic Festival. Nobody is quite sure, including the fest’s producers, because she and her team have been unable to get a clear answer on process from anybody.

Somehow that doesn’t feel right. We are supposed to be a village right? Why are we acting like we live inside of a Kafka novel?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m friends with Garlic Festival founder/producer Nancy Stewart-Franczak and her husband John. I like them. I think they are good people who mean to do well by the community. Nancy’s partner, Bern Ryan, is a good guy and Nancy’s small team consists of really nice people. They are a part of our community. A valuable part.

Nancy has lived in Delray for 25 years. She has been active as long I’ve known her which has been a long time. She has volunteered for many community causes, works very hard and gives back in many ways. She loves this city. She should be treated with respect. She hasn’t been. That’s my opinion based on what Nancy and others who support her have told me.

She’s been told that what she has brought to Delray is dispensable. I don’t think it is.  Neither do the non-profits who have benefitted from her event, even though some question the business model. See, the Garlic Festival has raised close to $600,000 for non-profits in its 18 year history here. People volunteer their time and their causes benefit. If the Boy Scouts or Police Explorers or any number of groups who volunteer don’t like the model, they can opt out. But apparently, they do. And it’s their choice to participate or not. They have told city commissioners that the event is meaningful to them and their causes and activities.

That said, no festival is beyond being asked to improve.

Nancy volunteered to be part of a process designed to mitigate some of the concerns raised about special events. She did not know she was donating hundreds of hours over nearly a year to destroy her livelihood and two decades of hard work.

Think I’m exaggerating? I wish I was.

But she and other event producers came to the table in good faith and they compromised by agreeing to shrink the footprint of their events, avoid road closures and in Nancy’s case get rid of rides which seem to upset the delicate sensibilities of some. Tell that to the kids and their parents who might have enjoyed the rides, I’m sure they’ll understand the need to make sure that our city doesn’t resemble a carnival.

If you think my friendship with Nancy and Bern might color my views so be it. Dismiss this opinion as biased. But know that while I have attended scores of events over 30 years living in Delray I haven’t gone to any lately and if I never go to another festival I’ll be ok.

Still, I don’t begrudge those who do. When my kids were little we went to Garlic Fest and other events and I looked for activities that they would enjoy. To take a family to a nice downtown event is a blessing. The kids are grown now, but there are other young moms and dads out there looking for something fun to do. Maybe it’s Garlic Festival, maybe it’s a dunk tank at a Wine and Seafood event or maybe it’s a St. Patrick’s Day parade with fire trucks and music. (That event is in trouble too).

These events mean something to this town; they mean something to our resident and to those who own businesses here and those who visit us. I think events are part of our brand. I think they bring value as economic development tools and yes I think they ring cash registers.

Sometimes the sales are made on the day of the event and sometimes they come after because when people come to Delray and experience our city I’m pretty sure that at least a few decide to come back to shop, dine and maybe even shop for a home or a nice hotel near the beach or downtown.

They may even tell some of their friends and relatives.

So while Bacon and Bourbon may not be my thing (and it’s not because I’m kosher and prefer Grey Goose) I have an appreciation for events and their meaning in terms of building community and supporting non-profits.

Downtowns– if they are worth their salt– are places to gather. We are so lucky have a downtown. Many cities don’t.

Others have downtowns that are dead or blighted—as ours used to be.

But we are blessed with a downtown that is vibrant, fun and has fueled a huge increase in property values and quality of life. If that goes away, I will care. And so will you. Because the downtown is our community’s heart and economic engine.

It’s where we go with friends and it’s where we gather when we celebrate and when we mourn like we did after 9/11 or when we needed to raise money when a beloved officer died on his way to work. If you think our downtown is bulletproof or immune to competition I think you’re wrong.

In season, you may have some trouble parking. I get it. In season, it may take you a long time 7-10 minutes in my experience to go from Swinton to A1A (I kept a diary this winter). Heck, sometimes the bridge goes up and sometimes an art fair closes a street. I suppose it can be annoying and I sympathize –to a point.

The opposite of traffic is no traffic. And trust me you don’t want that. We had that and it was awful. Dead, boring, dull, depressing…We used to have nothing but a sea of parking and it wasn’t that great–a sea of asphalt.

if you want to avoid any parking issues build a place that nobody wants to visit. That’ll solve your parking problem and create other issues.

Still, I think we need to see the other side and work together. The organizations and event producers seem willing.

Truth is, we should reinvent our events. We should talk about which ones work and which ones no longer fit. We should talk about what kind of demographics we hope to attract and who we hope to serve.

We should talk about timing, cost, and public safety. We should understand the needs of residents and the importance of tourism to our economy.

But somewhere along the line, this process has gone astray.

Instead of a collaborative effort to improve events–even reinvent them– the process morphed into an effort that will drive them out of business.

From small little walks for charity to events that support our Chamber of Commerce and Old School Square, we are at risk of losing a lot.

If you don’t think our Chamber is worth something you haven’t been there in a while. It’s helping businesses and connecting people all day every day. If you don’t think Old school Square is important I can’t help you because then you don’t understand how incredibly blessed we are to have the arts smack dab in the middle of our downtown. The center was conceived as a place for the community to gather. Events, inside and out, are at the very core of its mission. Do the grounds take a beating? Yep. Should we be discussing how to minimize and pay for that beating? Absolutely. But we should never put velvet ropes around Old School Square and turn it into a static museum. Yes, there are costs that have to be considered, but a cost structure that effectively ends events, may provide some relief to the city, but will also hurt the city in other ways.

Charitably you can call this process a bait and switch exercise—event producers volunteered to help mitigate concerns but did not sign up for a process that would drive them out of town.

But there is a chance to hit the pause button. There is a chance for the commission to exert leadership and get the process back on track. The event producers have acted in good faith and have stepped up to the plate by agreeing to meaningful reforms. It’s the city that has dropped the ball. It takes two sides to collaborate. A one sided process can be called a form of bullying. ‘I’m going to take your lunch money because I can’ is not a good way to run a place.

The city has the power–for now.

They can not only call the shots they can insist on anything they want–in the short term anyway but with lasting scars.

If you want reinvention, challenge the event producers and charities that rely on events. But don’t give vague directions and disappear, sit down and join the process. Spell out what a new vision for events might look like. Work with the producers and festival organizers not on them.

These are people we know. These are important civic institutions. They should not be driven out of town or to their knees financially in the name of reform or because some perceive that events are no longer needed or popular with residents and business owners. I have seen polling data and public records requests of emails that indicate otherwise. I have not seen data or analysis to show widespread dissatisfaction. Nor has anyone else– including the organizations that sponsor and produce the events.

As for costs, let’s talk. Share with the community what they cost, but show your work. I find it hard to fathom that a contained special event can approach the costs of an NFL game.

When we look at costs (and I’m sure that producers would pay more but not triple or quadruple) it’s only fair to consider benefits as well.

If you live close to the downtown you have seen your property values soar at a rate that far exceeds other cities.

It’s not all because of events. Some of it is because of Old School Square and some of it is because of our great shops and restaurants. But events play a role. They distinguish us. They have value not just costs and impacts.

Hit the reset button, invite the innovators to the table and every one should agree to show up with an open mind.

Again, events can always be better and they can always pay more to offset city costs. But they have value too and so do the individuals and organizations that produce, host, create and rely on them.

If a “solution” is imposed it won’t be sustainable. If it’s negotiated with a win-win outcome in mind it will make our village a better place in more ways than we can imagine.

Tonight is an opportunity to save the Garlic Festival and rethink the events policy.

 

Comments

  1. Jeff, I am humbled beyond words. Thank you my friend. Thank you for risking backlash for standing up for our community. NEGOTIATION – not am “imposed solution” is my big takeaway.

  2. Kevin Warner says:

    Mr Perlman,

    You say that you “have not seen data or analysis to show widespread dissatisfaction.” I get that. But how about data that contradicts the slap-hands-happy view expressed by you and others which portrays a wild majority of people who love special events in Delray?

    I refer to the DDA 2015 survey in which 59% of the respondents felt that special events had either a negative or neutral impact on them? Board member Ryan Boylston has ignored this fact when I asked him about it. Do you have a reasoned, impersonal response?

    • Jeff Perlman says:

      Yes. We surveyed Delray Beach voters. The question was simple: do you attend and or support having events in the downtown? A wild majority said they do, consistent with polling of voters over the years.
      I do know that the downtown belongs to everyone, not just downtown merchants, restaurant owners or people who live in or adjacent to the downtown. While their views are to be listened to and respected, they should not, in my opinion, hold a disproportionate vote or veto.

  3. Pat sciarillo says:

    Once again the voice of reason. Want to run for mayor again?…hopefullt they will reach some understanding.

    • Jeff Perlman says:

      Thanks, Pat. There is a clear compromise here. Hope they see fit to take it. Hope all is well.

  4. Tom johnston says:

    It’s for this reason you are and will remain my number 1 mayor. Well written Jeff. Thank you.

  5. Well said Jeff!
    Wish for a village team too!
    More commissioners and govt officials and community neighbors might consider toastmasters.
    A great community building project!
    Over 4000 in our toastmasters district 47
    156 club treasure coast to Bahamas
    Southeast toastmasters
    Thx neighbor!
    P
    Club President
    west boca toastmasters

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