Vancouver Island MusicFest has a long history of attracting talented performers such as Lucinda Williams, pictured above, to the Comox Valley. Williams will be a headliner at this year’s event. Photo by David McClister

Vancouver Island MusicFest producer puzzled by lack of government support

Due to rising costs across the board, Vancouver Island MusicFest can no longer meet the expenses associated with hosting its annual summer gathering at the Exhibition Grounds.

Festival organizers asked the Comox Valley Regional District for a three-year grant of $60,000 and for a waiving of rental fees, which run about $6,5000 a year. The CVRD, however, says the fees need to be paid in accordance with its Fees and Charges Bylaw.

Every four years, the district completes a search of user fees charged by other communities with similar exhibition grounds. The most recent comparison indicates rental rates in the Valley are behind by four per cent, according to a staff report.

At the Jan. 14 committee of the whole meeting, CVRD directors approved a second recommendation for staff to explore opportunities to help the festival generate revenue by using additional space at the fairgrounds. The Stonehenge site, which is attached to the grounds, contains about eight acres which could accommodate more campers at the festival.

MusicFest has made the same request from Courtenay council, which voted to apprise festival organizers of grant opportunities.

“It doesn’t feel like a handout to me, it feels like we’re asking them to support the biggest cultural tourism event on northern Vancouver Island, that has basically been a landmark event for the Comox Valley for 20 years,” said Doug Cox, MusicFest artistic director and executive producer. “We still don’t get any significant support from them. I’m extremely frustrated that our community governments do not support the arts in a meaningful way, and in a modern way…We present one of the best music festivals in the world. Why should we have to go begging to our community to support it?”

The non-profit MusicFest generates about $4.2 million a year to the Comox Valley economy, according to organizers. Its annual operating budget is about $1.4 million. Nearly $400,000 was spent with local suppliers for the 2019 event. Three to four per cent of funding comes from senior governments, the BC Arts Council, the BC Touring Council and Creative BC. Heritage Canada supplies a $50,000 annual grant. The balance comes from ticket sales, in-kind support, raffles and other fundraisers. In the last three years, MusicFest has either lost money or broke even.

Cox appreciates the massive number of volunteers and the 125 MusicFest sponsors in the business community, but he notes that other festivals in B.C. rely on local government funding. Salmon Arm, for instance, provides $50,000 towards its annual roots and blues festival. The Town of Comox provides $25,000 and in-kind support each year to Nautical Days.

Cox was encouraged by a suggestion from Area C director Edwin Grieve to apply for a $10,000 electoral area grant-in-aid, which could at least cover the rental costs.

District staff has recommended that MusicFest approach the Comox Valley Economic Development Society (CVEDS) board. However, at the presentation to Courtenay council, Cox said the festival has developed a “toxic relationship with CVEDS” after losing $40,000 at the first two winter festivals.

Area B director Arzeena Hamir — noting MusicFest helps to drive the local economy — asked if organizers could access Destination Marketing funds from the hotel tax. Jennifer Zbinden, senior manager of recreation services, said staff will need to report back to the board.

“I feel MusicFest does need the support of local government, whether that comes from municipalities or the Destination Marketing function, or the CVRD,” Courtenay alternate director Melanie McCollum said at Tuesday’s meeting. She concurs with Grieve that a “piecemeal” approach (waiving fees) is not the best way to support the festival.

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