Festival's finances have Riviera officials seeing red

By William Cooper Jr.
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

RIVIERA BEACH; The Sixth Annual Jazz and Blues Festival lost more than $600,000, leaving the beachfront concert seriously in the red and taxpayers to cover the cost of the bailout, city records show.

With expenses topping $1 million, city officials are scratching their heads over whether to scale back the event or cancel it altogether.  One thing is clear: City Manager Bill Wilkins wants Riviera Beach to end its contract with the festival's producer, Class C-1 Productions, the Sunrise entertainment company hired to run the event for 2006 and 2007.

Jesse Graves, president of Class C-1, couldn't be reached for comment on Tuesday. Sabrina Russ,
head of The Russ Agency, the public relations firm representing Class C-1, sent an e-mail referring
all inquires to Graves.

"This is a mess," said newly elected City Councilwoman Norma Duncombe. Duncombe and her
colleagues will discuss the financial report and festival's future at tonight's council meeting, which
starts at 7:30.

Councilman Jim Jackson called the event a waste of taxpayers' money. He believes that Class C-1
should be "run out of town."

Jackson, who along with Duncombe was elected in March, said the money being considered to cover
the festival's deficit could be used to hire more police officers, boost city workers' pay or cover the
cost of admission to Barracuda Bay so youngsters can visit the city's water park for free.

City staff estimates the festival's deficit is $630,050, nearly double the estimated $330,000 that last
year's event cost. The losses could go even higher if the city can't collect outstanding ticket revenues
and pledges from sponsors.

The staff report on the festival comes as the state auditor general's office is already probing the city's
books. Criticism from residents and questions by state lawmakers about the city's handling of its
finances sparked the audit.

City records show the festival's budget projections fell short in several areas. Class C-1 estimated
the festival would produce $1.1 million in revenues, and the city budgeted $660,000 for the event.

Ticket sales were projected at $520,000, but the report shows only $294,322 was collected. That figure, however, includes $75,355 that the city has yet to receive from Class C-1.

Ticket revenues were based on a major hike in prices. The cost of admission for the festival held March 24 and 25 went from $15 to $25 in 2005 to $38 in advance and $48 at the door this year.

A lack of corporate sponsors seriously contributed to the festival's deficit. City-generated sponsorships totaled $127,500, short of the projected $200,000. Class C-1 said it would raise $300,000 from sponsors, but city figures show the company brought in only $250,000 in in-kind contributions.

"The bottom line is, they didn't raise any money," said Councilwoman Vanessa Lee, who wants the council to review all city-financed special events.

The festival's financial woes come on top of bad publicity involving headliner Patti LaBelle's closing performance. LaBelle, upset about having to perform after midnight in 50-degree weather, cried on stage and complained nationally about her treatment in Riviera Beach.

LaBelle cut her performance short, although she was paid $125,000. That sum, according to city records, was one-third of the festival's entertainment budget.

This had been touted as the festival's breakout year, given that the city chose to hire an entertainment company to manage the event.  The past five festivals were organized by city staff.

City Council Chairwoman Ann Iles said complaints about the way past festivals had been handled led the city to seek bids. In October 2005, Class C-1 was hired and the city had to pay the company $40,000 upfront.

Iles said there is enough blame to go around and critics of the festival shouldn't be so quick to judge this year's event. Past festivals also struggled financially, she said.

"I thought we needed to take it out of the city's hands," Iles said.