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Festival ponders move

The Baltimore Sun

Organizers of the annual Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival are assessing their finances and mulling the location of next year's celebration, after rain apparently contributed to a lackluster turnout this year for the event's return to downtown Annapolis.

David Arthur, president of the board of directors for Kunta Kinte Celebration, said organizers will meet in the coming weeks to discuss fundraising strategies and the best format and venue for next year's festival.

City officials approved a one-day permit for the festival, celebrated Saturday at City Dock, taking into account concerns from the business community over a perceived drop in customer traffic when organized events convene downtown. In past years, the festival has been a two-day event and attracted more than 20,000 visitors.

Though organizers had been hopeful, rain showers fell throughout the day and there was no second day to make up for lost revenue. Although organizers had not yet calculated an attendance figure, they said turnout was far less than expected.

"When you have an outdoor festival, you're at the mercy of Mother Nature," said Arthur, who is also co-chair of the festival. "Some of the vendors did fairly well. People were in the shopping mood. So that was good. But we were, of course, disappointed."

Bob Agee, Annapolis' city administrator, who has attended the festival for years, said he was disconcerted by the lackluster turnout.

"I felt so badly for them," Agee said. "They worked so hard on this thing. It's just a shame."

It was supposed to be a triumphant return to downtown Annapolis for the festival, which celebrates Kunta Kinte, who was captured in his homeland of Gambia, West Africa, and sold into slavery at 17. He arrived in Annapolis on Sept. 29, 1767, aboard the ship Lord Ligonier.

The festival, in its 21st year, took place for many years downtown. It usually features jazz, gospel and R&B; performances, arts and crafts, traditional and ethnic food vendors, African dance and drumming, mask-making, storytelling and educational seminars.

Pulitzer Prize winner Alex Haley, a descendant of Kinte, told his ancestor's story in his epic novel Roots , which was made into a television miniseries.

The festival eventually outgrew the increasingly cramped area around City Dock and moved to St. John's College. In 2001, because of construction in and around the campus, the event moved to a larger venue at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds in Crownsville.

But the festival, which costs between $80,000 and $100,000 to put on every year, was just breaking even, Arthur said. A jump in cost to use the fairgrounds forced organizers to look for a different venue, Arthur added.

Downtown Annapolis is a premier location, but as a festival site it has some downsides, Arthur said. It doesn't allow organizers to charge admission. Parking is tight. And the complaints from business owners over a perceived loss of revenue during festivals put pressure on city officials to grant only a one-day permit.

Despite the inclement weather, two of Haley's brothers, George W. Haley, former ambassador to Gambia, and Julius Haley, attended the festival, along with John Amos, the actor who played the adult Kunta Kinte in Roots.

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