The summer festival season is fast approaching, and while most of us take the festivals for granted, many volunteers have been working throughout the year to plan Madison, Ind.’s premiere events: RiverRoots Folk Festival, Madison Regatta, Madison Ribberfest barbecue and blues festival, and the Madison Chautauqua Festival of Art.
The all-volunteer Madison Regatta committee operates under its own separate non-profit entity, but the other three events are organized and produced by their respective committees that fall under the umbrella of VisitMadison Inc., the city’s tourism bureau. Of these, the Madison Chautauqua has been at it the longest and enters its 43rd year in 2013.
The Madison Ribberfest was created in 2002 by the late Jeff Garrett and it has grown into the largest and most profitable event, primarily due to its prime mid-August time of the year, enthusiastic and hard working committee members, its signing of popular blues acts and alcohol sales, which generates a large percent of its gross profit. The committee earned a record $384,242 in gross profit last year after experiencing its largest crowd to date. Of that, $128,972 resulted from the sale of food and alcohol.
The committee is led by Kathy Ayers, who took over as director after Garrett’s death. Over the years, she has proven herself to the tourism board, which has continued to increase her stipend. Just two months ago, the board gave Ayers yet another $2,000 raise, pushing her annual pay to $21,000. That’s just $5,500 below Chautauqua coordinator Georgie Kelly’s annual pay of $26,500.
Chautauqua, perhaps the most well-known Madison festival outside of the Unlimited hydroplane racing community, attracts an estimated crowd of 35,000 each year. Last year, it had one of its biggest years also, earning $116,130 in gross income. Most of it came from exhibitors’ fees, totaling $69,770. Its other primary revenue sources were sponsorships ($16,555) and concession fees ($15,050). Another $6,028 was generated from the sale of limited edition posters and souvenir shirts. After nearly $96,000 in expenses, it netted just over $20,000.
The entire town fills with shoppers who not only browse the 250 juried exhibitor booths along the riverfront but also take in the Old Court Days arts and crafts fair around the Jefferson County Courthouse and other activities, such as Lanthier Winery’s Harvest Celebration and merchant sidewalk sales, church bake sales, yard sales, the Friends of the Library book sale and the Madison Volunteer Firehouse No. 1 fish fry.
Chautauqua itself however generates very little net profit because it does not charge an admission and – unlike the St. James Court Art Fair that follows a week later each in Louisville – it does not sell alcohol. Not even a wine tent.
Kelly defends her decision to not offer a wine tent or alcohol at Chautauqua by saying it would detract from the family image the festival wants to maintain.
RiverRoots, meanwhile, was founded in 2004 by the late John Walburn and struggled to get its footing during its first few years. Obstacles included the unpredictable and often cold and rainy weather in May, and the committee’s difficulty in interpreting to the public its definition of folk music. But after the committee reorganized two years ago in the wake of Walburn’s death, it seemed to have found a newfound purpose and enthusiasm. It immediately launched an aggressive sponsorship drive and created some clever offseason fundraising parties that have not only helped the festival endure, but also grow in stature. New aspects, such as a microbrew beer tent and a second performance stage, have been added. This year, the committee is planning to add new cultural food vendors and continue to expand its microbrew aspect with a beer-making contest.
RiverRoots is entering its ninth year and new festival chairman Greg Ziesemer, a performing musician himself, has lofty goals of taking the event to the same level as Ribberfest, in terms of popularity and financial success. Perhaps as a sign of where RiverRoots is in relation to its cousins, Ribberfest and Chautauqua, Ziesemer’s stipend is just $8,400 a year.
Another comparison in the financial health of the three festivals could be viewed in the amount of money each one has socked away in interest-earning certificate of deposits over the years. The Ribberfest has banked $180,000 in savings over 11 years, according to Ayers. The Chautauqua, meanwhile, has a nest egg of $183,279 after 42 years of existence, according to Kelly. The two festival directors like to refer to these slush funds as their “rainy day funds,” to be used to keep their events alive should they ever experience a bad year.
RiverRoots has no “rainy day fund.”
Ziesemer admits the festival has a ways to go in size and financial stability, but he and his committee members have been dogged in their pursuit of new sponsors. They are hoping that by changing the name of the festival last year from the former Ohio River Valley Folk Festival to RiverRoots will help better define the music and take the emphasis off “folk,” which Ziesemer says has a limiting connotation of the type of music offered at the event. And they have increased the price of admission this year to $25 for two days.
The RiverRoots committee, meanwhile, is planning its second of two offseason parties, a “Kickoff Fundraiser,” from 7-11 p.m. Friday, April 5, at the Broadway Hotel & Tavern. The event will feature The Black Lillies, a popular band from Louisville. The festival itself is May 17-18 at Madison Bicentennial Park and will feature headliner the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
And while RiverRoots may still follow in the shadow of Ribberfest and Chautauqua, its members are just as determined and enthusiastic – perhaps even more so. After all, they admittedly still have something to prove.
Perhaps it is the sheer challenge of still shaping and evolving the festival that feeds the excitement of those working on the RiverRoots committee? While the event has endured several setbacks through the years, weather-wise and attendance–wise, one thing is clear: They believe.
It is that same sort of raw enthusiasm that made Ribberfest great.
Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout.
Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email: Don@RoundAbout.bz.