Opinion Columns & Blogs

September 9, 2012

Dave Carter, Jim Hand: How to revive Riverfest

The Wichita River Festival’s Windwagon has lost its rudder, tossed in a sea of red ink, navigating in a fog of issues.

The Wichita River Festival’s Windwagon has lost its rudder, tossed in a sea of red ink, navigating in a fog of issues.

It was good to hear the festival’s new vice president of program development indicate that “absolutely everything” was being re-evaluated during the recent Wichita Festivals Inc. staff retreat (Sept. 2 Eagle).

We have a combined 73 years of volunteer leadership and participation at virtually every level of the festival, starting in 1975. We, along with many other past admirals, board chairmen, general chairmen and key volunteers, are actively promoting the following recommendations to the festival board and organization. We feel an obligation to share this with the community at large.

“Free with your button” should be the mantra. There may be an occasional event or activity that requires a supplement, but those should be held to the absolute minimum. This would likely require a shift away from “name” entertainers – but the “names” have necessitated supplemental fees for festivalgoers and resulted in poor attendance.

While realizing that things can never be the same as they used to be, consider rolling out some of the “retro” events that dot our 41 years. Many are smaller or family-friendly activities, but they have stood the test of time, they offer variety, and they often appeal to a wider range of participants and sponsors.

At the same time, recognize that some events have outlived their day. With the busyness of life today, people have less time and money for the weeks of preparation often required for a major participatory festival event. However, other fun and exciting “walk-up-and-participate” options are possible.

Those responsible for sponsorships and events should be challenged to re-evaluate prior events and explore ways for certain events to return with full sponsorships, with potential participants already lined up. Too many of the “dead” events described in the recent Eagle article appeared to be summarily waved off as too expensive or too difficult to pursue.

Take advantage of other beautiful Wichita venues. For example, some readers will recall events in Central and South Riverside parks as well as on the tranquil, treelined Little Arkansas River. Concentrating all events in the footprint immediately around Century II poses limitations.

The arrival of new management at Wichita Festivals Inc. provides a natural opportunity to strengthen or rebuild rapport with sponsors, civic leaders and other community organizations. And with a corps of dedicated volunteers ready to continue the Riverfest tradition, new staffers could benefit from the experience of more than four decades and many, many thousands of volunteer hours. Those who have chaired the various events and functional areas should be called upon throughout the planning and execution process, as we rediscover our sea legs aboard the Windwagon. And, yes, those volunteers are ready to serve.

Most important, and with respect to the organization’s governance, realize that some 11 years ago the model was changed. The senior staffer was given the title of president/CEO, as opposed to the former executive director title. Simultaneously, the board and virtually all functions started reporting to this person, with an accompanying erosion of committee participation.

We propose that the organization return to the traditional governance structure. That involves a shifting of direct responsibility back to the board. Empowered committees would be restored and revitalized, and in many cases board members would serve on committees.

Combined with increased volunteer participation at the committee and event levels, a streamlined professional staff could then accomplish its objectives with lower overhead while benefiting from the synergy of board members and street-smart volunteers who love Wichita, “bleed Riverfest” and clearly see the issues that have been widely publicized in the public forum.

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