May 8, 2013 10:51:29 AM
The Columbus City Council voted 4-2 Tuesday in favor of providing $2,500 in matching funds to the Afro-American Culture Organization in support of the Juneteenth Festival at the request of festival founder and Lowndes County supervisor Leroy Brooks.
Brooks said when he appeared before the board that he submitted Miss. Code 39-15-1, which grants authority of municipal and county government to expend general fund monies in support of the arts. Brooks, who rejected $15,000 in funding from the Columbus Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau last December, said he regretted having to come before the council to seek funding but because of "the dynamics of what has happened" with the CVB's new guidelines that only allow 25 percent of a tourism grant to be used for entertainment. He said he felt it necessary to ask for funding to "take the strain off" of organizers who are asking local businesses to make up for what the CVB previously provided.
"It's an event that initially we had decided if it didn't get funding, let's not do it, but because of the overwhelming call for the Juneteenth Festival we decided to venture off and try and raise funds. There are some local businesses that have been very gracious and have pledged support and in-kind services," Brooks said. "The Juneteenth Festival is an art activity in and of itself. We have all kinds of art. We have visual art. We have literal art. We have archaeology art, but the Juneteenth Festival comes closest to a performing art. I met with three people the other day who want to come in on that Friday and for two hours and have an open-mic talent show, which falls within the purview of theater."
Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin, and Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box opposed Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem's motion to approve funding. Gavin noted that Brooks rejected the CVB grant and could not support his request.
"The guidelines the CVB put in place only allow 25 percent to be used for entertainment and the rest has to be used for promotion. These festivals that we have are entertainment-orientated," Brooks argued. "You don't have good music, people don't come. I respect your opinion, but at the same time, this $2,500 I'm asking you for is taxpayer money. So is the CVB."
"The 25 percent (from the CVB grant Brooks declined) that could be used for the entertainment portion is ($3,500)," Gavin noted.
"Most of these festivals, entertainment itself starts at $10,000 to $15,000, so I didn't feel compelled to take something that was going to strangle me to death," Brooks responded. "We've had to scale back considerably on the entire thing. This festival is something that is overwhelmingly popular in some pockets of the community. Our budget for entertainment is probably about $7,000. We haven't been able to consummate all the contracts. A major part of our festival is in years past we've had various gospel groups around the state and if we're unable to raise the money we're going to have to ask church choirs to volunteer."
Box said if one festival organizer asks for funding and receives it, a precedent is then set for others to follow.
"If we open it up and the city starts to put money in these festivals then every one of them are going to come up here asking us for money we don't have. We've already budgeted our year -- you know how you are with the county -- we're straining right now with sales tax," Box said. "I don't see how we could rightly justify putting $2,500 into this festivals when there are 12 other festivals that go to the CVB for their funding."
Box then asked Brooks if Lowndes County funds were being used for the festival, to which Brooks answered he "wouldn't dare" ask supervisors for money because he is one himself.
Gavin echoed Box's reasoning.
"If we open this can of worms, who's next? Someone else will be up here asking for money," Gavin said. "When we open that door up we can't close it for individual groups. We have to leave it open it for everybody."
Karriem said granting funding to festivals should be determined on a case-by-case basis.
"As we look at our dwindling tax sales, I think we have to support everything that we possibly can to bring in revenue inside the city of Columbus. I think all of us have visited the Juneteenth Festival and we know how important it is to this community," Karriem said. "Talking to one major distributor here in town, this event along with a couple of others, you see an increase in gas, hotel stays, revenue at the convenience stores and a spike in sales across the city. I think this is good for the city and something we should consider."
Mayor Robert Smith then asked city attorney Jeff Turnage for his legal opinion.
"It's a factual determination that you all have to make," Turnage said. "If you determine you want to fund it, you would have to find as a fact that funding the festival would support the development, promotion and coordination of the arts within the city," Turnage said. "More than likely, if it were to be challenged it would be upheld either way you decided because you have all discretion."
Another vote to allow the sale and consumption of beer at the festival, which is scheduled for June 14-15 at Sims Scott Park, also passed 4-2, with Box and Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens voting in dissent.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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