Although festival planners are proud of the events they have presented in recent years, Hickey says the festival budget took an "immediate hit" when the recession began. The Columbia Festival of the Arts had a $1,000,000 budget in 2007, Hickey says, and has a $700,000 budget in 2012. Ticketed events once numbered as high as 16 per year, whereas there are eight ticketed events this year.
The grants and corporate support necessary to help underwrite ticketed events has yet to fully recover from the recession. This means that the 3,000 to 4,000 people who on average attend the ticketed events each year have had fewer events from which to choose in recent years.
As for the approximately 30,000 people who show up for the free LakeFest weekend, Hickey acknowledges that the festival "spends over $200,000 to put it on with no return."
However, LakeFest qualifies as the emotional heart of the festival. "We've made a very determined decision not to cut the LakeFest budget," Hickey says firmly.
Festival has financial challenges
Those who oversee the Columbia Festival of the Arts are aware of the challenges they face to keep the festival going.
"From when the economic downtown began in 2008, our funding was affected and as a result the organization had managed fiscal responsibility," Schwabe says.
"It's challenging for all nonprofits," concurs Sachs.
Among the cuts in ticketed events that Hickey made in recent years was a reduction in classical music and dance programs. She explains that local classical music organizations fortunately have strong seasons of their own. As for dance, she says that it's expensive to produce and festival ticket sales for dance events have been relatively slow.
"We're trying to maintain the quality and something had to go," Hickey says. "Our dance audience has dropped off in recent years. We could not afford to do two or three (such) events" each year.
Perhaps there is a silver lining for such cuts in the 25th anniversary schedule.
"It's been a positive thing to reduce the number of events," Hickey states.
She explains that while fewer ticketed events have been staged in the last several years, more tickets have been sold for shows that remain. She said the ticketed events had more than 85 percent occupancy last year; occupancy in previous years was in the 50 to 60 percent range.
Hickey and her fellow festival planners have been crunching a lot of numbers lately, because they want the festival to remain on the local scene.
"It's extraordinary that a community our size has such a festival," says Howard County Council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who represents Columbia's downtown on the council and who also is on the board of trustees for the festival.
"When I look at the potential for downtown, there are opportunities for the festival" that include a revamped Symphony Woods as a possible venue, Sigaty continues.
Sigaty also cites plans for increased residential and business growth downtown as boding well for the festival. Looking beyond downtown Columbia, she adds that the festival already utilizes sites elsewhere in Howard County and may be able to do even more such events when the economic climate improves.
"The festival has been around for 25 years and wants to be around for another 25 years," says Schwabe.