Swan song for summer music festival?

The 19th Annual Music and Arts Festival on Aug. 1 may be the last, the Bainbridge Island Park and Recreation District says.

The free outdoor festival, long sponsored by the park district with support from the city and the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council, is a casualty of budget cuts in the wake of defeat of the last park district levy.

“We’re hoping to keep the arts booths component,” said Sue Hylen, the district’s cultural arts supervisor. “We’re trying to look towards the future and possibly partner with Island Music Guild, which is still up for discussion.

“With a different twist and partnership, it could work out fine,” she said, “but this is the last year for it in this form.”

The festival debuted in 1985 as a low-key “mini-Woodstock” at Battle Point Park. An admission fee was dropped after a downpour washed out the 1995 festival; the event was moved to Waterfront Park, and expanded to include the visual arts.

“When you charge a fee, the weather component is always an issue with an outdoor event, and the booth artists don’t make money with a fee,” Hylen said. “And the logistics at Waterfront Park make charging a fee impractical.”

The one-day event has drawn some off-island music fans, but competition from a growing number of Puget Sound festivals has thinned crowds over the years.

“A lot depends on the off-island part,” Hylen said. “There may be 1,500 attending, but it’s not a huge crowd all at once. It’s over the whole day.”

Even after joining forces with the quarterly Arts Walk – the Arts Council-sponsored display of artists and musicians at downtown stores – the festival has not been financially viable.

While the lineup of musicians has provided quality entertainment (see related story, this page), paying the performers has made the day “very, very expensive” to put on. With no admission fee, the park district underwrote the event by thousands of dollars. Underwriting entertainment for visitors with island tax money rankled some park board members.

“We have to look at who we’re serving,” Hylen said. “We’re serving an off-island crowd.”

In contrast, another joint parks-city program, the free summer concerts at Waterfront Park every Wednesday evenings, is an island-centric event that sees locals picnicking on the lawn near Waterfront Park stage.

Even if voters approve a switch to a metropolitan park district with more stable funding, continued support for the festival in its present form is unlikely, Hylen said. Still, she is optimistic that a partnership with IMG could revitalize the festival.

Norm Johnson, guild president, has yet to discuss the issue with his board, But he sees merit in the organization picking up the event to keep it going.

“The difference is going to be that IMG doesn’t have any funds to bring in big names from outside. It will probably be different, more local,” Johnson said. “I’m sorry to see the park district doesn’t have the funding.”

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