Eagle editorial: Shore up River Festival

Much of the Wichita River Festival’s success depends on factors beyond its control. Will it rain or be blazing hot? How many people will buy festival buttons? Will concerts and new events be a hit?

But Riverfest has lost money for four consecutive years and is running out of reserve funds, so organizers have to make changes to what they can control if the festival is going to be around for another 41 years.

This year’s festival, held in June, lost about $85,000, according to Janet Wright, president and CEO of Wichita Festival Inc. That likely will wipe out what’s remaining in the festival’s reserves.

Those reserves were nearly $500,000 about five years ago. But they’ve been eaten away by reductions in corporate sponsorships – down about $90,000 this year – and by declines in button sales – down about 17,000 buttons from last year (or about $85,000) and more than 50,000 buttons from 2008.

Festival officials blame most of the drop in sponsorships and button sales on the economy, as businesses and families have had to curb their spending. Many festivals across the country have seen similar declines.

The officials had hoped the economy would bounce back by now, but that hasn’t happened – and may not for some time. So they will have to be more aggressive in shoring up the festival’s finances.

Increasing the button price, which hasn’t happened in seven years, is one option. But that could lead to fewer sales and more people freeloading at festival events.

As it is, about 240,000 people attended this year’s festival, but only about 75,000 buttons were sold.

“We saw a ton of people without buttons on at free concerts, and that’s disheartening,” Wright said.

People who attend the festival need to help pay for it. And the $5 button is a bargain.

The festival likely will have to reduce its costs, which were about $1.2 million this year. Wichita Festival Inc. has already been doing this, including not giving raises to its paid staff and requiring furloughs. It likely will need more administrative cutbacks and fewer or less costly festival events.

Festival officials also need to reach out to the public for ideas on improving Riverfest and closing its budget shortfall.

Despite its challenges, Riverfest is still the biggest party in town. But until the economy picks up and more businesses step up to be sponsors, it may need to be a little less big.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee