BRADENTON — With hopes of making the successful Ringling International Arts Festival an annual event, former state Sen. John McKay asked the Manatee County Commission on Tuesday to consider providing $250,000 for a possible festival next year.
The inaugural festival, held in October, had an economic impact of more than $1.5 million, according to a festival impact report. The festival also created positions that were equivalent to 50 full-time jobs that brought nearly $1.4 million in local household income. On top of that, nearly all of its 36 performances were sold out.
The unexpected momentum the festival brought is likely to pull even bigger economic numbers while creating more jobs for the area if continued annually, organizers said.
“I’m really here to talk about jobs,” McKay, chairman of the festival’s organizing committee, told the commission.
But commissioners wondered if they should support it and where the money should come from.
The arts festival — hosted by the John and Mable Ringling Museum, Florida State University and New York’s Baryshnikov Arts Center — was originally planned for every two years. The five-day event showcased some of the best avant-garde artists in the world.
The festival ended with $500,000 in the bank, but needs more funding to ensure contracts for next year’s event. So far, it has been promised $100,000 from the city of Sarasota, and the Sarasota County commission has indicated it will ante-up $250,000 sometime this month, McKay said.
McKay also plans to ask the city of Bradenton for funding.
Manatee County commissioners asked County Administrator Ed Hunzeker how the county could fund such a grant.
“The festival has a two-fold benefit to the county,” Hunzeker said, “as a tourist generator and as economic development.”
Nearly 22 percent of Ringling festival-goers were from other areas of Florida; 9 percent hailed from 40 other states. Out-of-state tourism is expected to double if the festival returns in 2010, Dwight Currie, Ringling Museum’s associate director of programming, told the Bradenton Herald.
On average, local attendees spent $27.29 per person in addition to festival admission costs while tourists spent $12.90 more, according to the impact report. In all, there was $476,738 in event-related spending.
The festival also generated a 48 percent increase in attendance at the Ringling Museum.
Hunzeker, who supports funding the festival, said the money could come from the Tourist Development Tax fund and from the county reserve fund.
Commissioner Joe McClash said funding requests should first go before the Tourist Development Council.
Though McClash would like to support the festival, he said it has to be balanced with other arts and tourism needs in the county, such the Manatee Players’ new venue and the restoration of the Anna Maria City Pier. He also said the festival should not rely so much on government funding, but should also seek business partnerships with Tropicana and Bealls.
Manatee Players development director Janene Witham told the Herald that as a development director, she can appreciate the festival looking for funding from any available sources, but said she hopes that if the commission and TDC the requested $250,000, “that somehow Manatee County home-based arts interests could participate in the festival.”
Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who also is the chair of the TDC, agreed with McClash that the advisory board should look at the funding. She said that when the request for funds for the first festival came before the board, it was almost as an afterthought. But those funds, which also helped with festival marketing material, did not include references to Manatee County.
“Manatee County is not going to be the step-child of the arts anymore,” Whitmore said, “with the actions of groups such as Realize Bradenton, there’s a momentum.”
McKay, who lives in Manatee County, said he has insisted that any literature for the festival will include both Manatee and Sarasota counties.
“We can’t have a myopic view that has been around for decades,” he said, referring to the perception that Sarasota County is the arts community and Manatee County does not have an interest in the arts.
The commissioners agreed the two counties had to work together to make the festival successful and voted to have Hunzeker come back with suggestions on where to find the funds.
Ringling festival organizers should know by February if its event will return for 2010, Currie said.
“It would be a very bad business decision to put the breaks on it,” he said.