Baltimore Festivals on the Upswing?


Isn't politics wonderful?

Now that Kurt L. Schmoke is seriously pursuing governorship, his campaign packagers have come to the conclusion that nothing advertises the mayor more effectively than what he is doing in Baltimore City.

Suddenly, Baltimore is being presented as a city where things are on the upswing. A trusted campaign wizard, Daniel P. Henson, has been brought into the mayoral cabinet, and perennial complaints are finally being aggressively addressed and thorny problems solved.

As an example, the year-long controversy surrounding new rules for holding private festivals in the city has ended as abruptly as it began.

"It's a totally different environment," marvels Bea Haskins, a founder of the Coalition of Special Events Coordinators that fought City Hall on the new rules. "There seems to be a better sense among his administration on how to handle constituent concerns."

As far the municipal government is concerned, nothing much has changed. The city continues its new policy of billing private special events for infrastructure, clean-up and police services. But instead of a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, city officials are now trying to find out ways to accommodate the needs of festivals.

The Fells Point Fun Festival, a two-day bash in early October that is among the biggest annual crowd events, was able to reduce the fees it has to pay for city services from $37,000 to $29,000 because officials were willing to negotiate and consider alternative arrangements.

Ms. Haskins, a consultant to the festival, still is not happy about high fees but thinks "the city is being more cooperative."

Outdoor festivals became one of Baltimore's chief vehicles to improve its image and herald its downtown rebirth in the 1970s. After spectacular early success, the legendary City Fair withered away. The Jewish Festival eventually moved to Owings Mills, and most other ethnic fairs went indoors, a reflection of their changed nature as major fund-raising events which do not tolerate rain or fears of urban disruptions.

Hundreds of festivals and special events from bull roasts to parades are held in the city each year. (The biggest is the Artscape extravaganza which is winding up today around the Maryland Institute campus).

The introduction of the new fees policy last year has created uncertainty among many event organizers. After March of Dimes Walk-a-Thon moved out to Baltimore County -- amid charges that the city was killing festivals -- the Schmoke administration finally realized it had to do something.

It will soon announced the overhaul of the permit process for crowd events. A previously cumbersome system will be streamlined and the permits issuance transferred to the Department of Recreation and Parks, according to mayoral spokesman Clint Coleman.

The city, still basking in the afterglow of all the positive media publicity it received during this month's All-Star baseball festivities, is also stepping up efforts to recruit similar high-visibility events here.

"Whenever you have success, people have a desire to be associated with that success," explains Bill Gilmore, director of the Baltimore office of promotion.

Major festivals can have a profound economic impact. Tourist officials estimate that five-days of All-Star baseball events generated a whopping $30 million in business in Baltimore. That is why Baltimore has repeatedly toyed with the idea of sponsoring an international festival that would give it the instant recognition that Edinburgh, Scotland, and Spoleto, Italy, are getting from their cultural cavalcades.

Amid today's global recession Baltimore is still dreaming.

A couple of years ago, the Abell Foundation studied the idea of a festival here that would have been held every other year and would have been dedicated each time to a different foreign country, its culture and heritage. "We concluded that it wouldn't [fly], that the money couldn't be found," says Abell president Robert C. Embry Jr.

Successful festivals may be important to the economies of host cities, but they are essential for the psychological well-being and sense of self-worth of the local population. This, of course, was the idea behind William Donald Schaefer's "make-it-happen" policy of helping every imaginable festival while he was Baltimore mayor.

The sheer number of festivals in Baltimore today, their increasingly commercial nature and escalated costs may have made this kind of indiscriminate festival policy impossible to continue. Their importance, however, has not changed. Every successful crowd event -- from Municipal Band concerts to neighborhood garden tours -- makes residents feel good about their city and its prospects. When residents have that feeling, visitors will come and share in the enthusiasm.

This is obvious at Montreal's annual jazz festival. Since its repertoire ranges from hip hop to gospel, it is not really about "jazz." And while it does have a salutary effect on the occupancy rates of local hotels, most of the events -- 350 performances over 11 days -- were mobbed by locals.

As tens of thousands of people of all ages jammed free concerts in Montreal downtown each night earlier this month, it was clear that they were celebrating their city and its vibrancy. That's what Baltimore, too, does at Artscape and other fetes. That's why even the smallest of neighborhood festivals is important to the city's fabric.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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