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Moogfest and AOC funding, through a different lens

My colleague Lisa Sorg had an article earlier this week on Moogfest and the Art of Cool Festival (AOC) that's generated a lot of dialogue and discussion here in the comments, and elsewhere online.

Much of the discussion comes through a lens of equity -- around race, and around the (real or perceived) difference between a locally-generated festival, and one that's chosen to relocate to the Bull City.

Lenses have a lot of uses. In the real world, they can serve to make things clearer -- or to distort things, like a funhouse mirror -- or, like a magnifying glass to a sun, to concentrate attention on one white-hot corner until it burns.

To my mind, the view through an equity lens on the Moogfest/AOC debate is still a little foggy. After talking to parties on all sides of the issue, while I think the City could (and likely will) do more to support a wide range of events, I'm pretty convinced that this was never a process that expected or sought to create inequity. (And indeed, Moogfest's out-of-cycle request may have led to a level of data-driven scrutiny that will help AOC and other festivals.)

It is, though, a reminder of the importance of contextualizing public decisions broadly, to consider their impact on all stakeholders, most particularly at a time when change has so many in Durham on edge. 

Unfortunately, in our current Best Durham Tradition, sometimes the view through one lens doesn't always give us all the context needed.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

First, some background.

AOC, like Full Frame and the American Dance Festival (ADF), but not Moogfest, applied for their initial 2016 events funding in the City's FY2015-16 budget. That program is managed by the City's Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD).

During that process, AOC was awarded $5,000 in City support through OEWD's program, less than the $20,000 to $25,000 that AOC founder Cicely Mitchell initially requested.

Many months later, Moogfest -- which was only confirmed to be moving to Durham in July, after the City budget was adopted -- appealed independently to City and County leaders for economic support.

Moogfest, we're told, submitted their request for funding on October 20, 2015, and has sat through several City Council meetings on the subject, including an extended discussion during work session on March 24.

It was during that work session that AOC founder Cicely Mitchell signed up to speak on the item, and in her comments requested an additional $20,000 in funding.

That funding wasn't on the original agenda, prompting the administration to take the item back for review, as the Herald-Sun noted:

As organizers from Moogfest asked the City Council to help fund its multi-day soiree May 19-22 on Thursday, another festival sought funds from the city. [...]

City Manager Tom Bonfield hadn’t heard of the request prior to the meeting on Thursday and said he’d have the administration look into it the funding request and bring it back to the council.

It is true that Mitchell's request for funding at the March 24 meeting was an "off-cycle" ask. But in doing so, Mitchell was in essence asking for a re-evaluation of the full, $20,000 to $25,000 funding she initially requested in her FY2016 budget ask.

"The way non-profits [festivals] work, we have to fill out a grant application," Mitchell said, noting that Moogfest's request did not fall under the same process. "All the non-profits got cut back this year, not just Art of Cool."

OEWD director Kevin Dick told BCR that the FY2016 process for AOC and other non-profits sought to provide festivals with funding, but started with a limited base of funding available through that program.

Dick noted that when OEWD has had extra money, it's tried to provide it to AOC during the cycle; for instance, in 2015, AOC's approved $5,000 grant grew to $8,000 based on fund availability.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So, if there was limited money under the OEWD program, what was different when Moogfest made its ask?

From one lens, Moogfest getting a more generous funding -- more generous than would have been provided to a non-profit event under existing channels -- has the hallmarks of an equity issue.

But I'm not convinced that it makes sense to attribute to inequity what may be better explained as organizations reacting to opportunity, not always in a perfect way.

According to data from the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau (DCVB), the projected economic impact for Moogfest is nearly $7 million, making the event -- if successful -- almost as meaningful from an economic development perspective as Full Frame and AOC combined.

Dick cautioned that as a first-year event, we don't have a local track record on Moogfest, though interpolation based on the event's past history in Asheville is possible.

Still, the potential to attract a major festival that can boost Durham's profile and bring in a significant number of out-of-town visitors is something that one can argue makes sense to look at from an economic development perspective.

Also worth noting: the Moogfest request process began in October 2015, with a final decision coming months later, after the DCVB prepared at City Council request a fuller economic impact analysis including projections of Moogfest's impact.

Interestingly, the DCVB report (available here, for your reading pleasure) does perhaps the best job possible of helping AOC make a stronger case for funding.

Dick couldn't recall whether an economic impact analysis had been included by AOC in their FY16 request, though he noted that Full Frame and ADF had typically had these data, given their long track record and history of successful economic impact, justifying their continued level of city support.

(Click the image below for a larger version)

Moogfest_aoc_impactWhat do the data show?

Well, assuming the projections are on track -- this is Moogfest's first year in Durham, after all, and there are reasonable fears that HB2 could have an outsized impact on visitor participation -- a few things stand out:

  • Even with the large ask for funds, Moogfest's ROI ratios, as seen in the right-hand columns, is roughly on par with Full Frame. (I say on par since while it looks stronger relative to the $62,500 ask from the City, you need to halve the economic and tax impact ROIs to note the County's $62,500 as well as City funding.)
  • At a strict $5,000 support level, AOC's economic ROI is certainly very well-justified -- indeed, its return is much greater on a per-investment basis than any other festival.
  • At the $25,000 full funding level that AOC originally asked for, and which is now under consideration, its ROI appears to be in line with Full Frame and Moogfest.
  • In looking at total tax impact, note that those tax dollars actually accrue to the City, County, and other bodies, not strictly to the City.

From my perspective, we had a process in place -- an existing, OEWD-led grants program -- that evaluated festivals and provided them funding.

Then, a new, big-fish opportunity arrived in Moogfest, with a potential for outsized economic impact. And the City was asked to provide support akin to other economic development activities that take place.

I can perfectly understand and getting behind Moogfest. Raleigh has Hopscotch, and it makes sense for Durham to compete to win a festival that can bring attention not just to the arts, but to the excellent work happening in local startup communities, universities and elsewhere.

So, good on us for going after this.

Sometimes, I fear, there are voices in our community that are so laser-focused on change, disruption, gentrification and displacement, that we forget to recognize that all of those negatives happen as a reaction to the impact of something positive -- in this case, downtown development, new high-skill jobs, new employers, startups and downtown residential interest.

Mitigating the negatives of the former doesn't mean stopping progress on the latter. Increasingly, it's harder for me to tell if the more negative voices in our community care more about mitigating change's impact or halting the change.

And in this case, I say -- Moogfest coming to town is a great thing. And it's a program worthy of our collective support.

At the same time, the process underway has highlighted to me that AOC, based on its economic impact, is also fully deserving of a level of economic support that it hasn't gotten through the OEWD process.

Is that an equity issue? I tend to think it isn't, since at the end of the day, the economic impact data justify the funding whether or not Moogfest was coming to town. And, it's not clear to me that those data were getting a full hearing before Moogfest's request.

While cautioning that OEWD was still evaluating the recent ask from Art of Cool, OEWD's Dick told BCR that DCVB's data would be important to the administration's review.

"I think that we have more data to draw from, that certainly justifies a longer look at a higher amount" of funding, Dick said. "Durham always wants to be equitable in all its decision-making -- not just racial, but on return on investment lines."

Dick also added that economic impact, while crucial, wasn't the only factor that gets reviewed. Data that festivals provide on any changing circumstances, be they the presence of other sponsorships, changing costs, or new constraints can alter impact. Then, too, a long-established festival may over time need less help to be successful. 

(To those focused on the equity lens, I'd point out that the American Dance Festival, practically a community institution, also receives a paltry amount of funding relative to its impact.)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This should be a no-brainer, then, right? It's no surprise that Mitchell would go to Council and ask for full funding, and the data seem to back it up. 

Certainly, from the City Council work session I listened to, the idea of supporting AOC didn't seem to be controversial, what with the Mayor stating initially after Mitchell's comment that it seemed to make sense, and all of the Council agreeing.

To me, it's the calm agreeability of the Council in that March 24 work session that makes the greatest argument against this being an equity issue.

That is, after all, how Durham works when it works best -- rational people, open to reason and data, wanting to hear more but amenable to what's fair.

My guess is that AOC will receive the funding it initially requested from the City's program.

Still, I do think there is a strong need for both the City and County to revisit their programs and methodology for supporting major community events.

AOC founder Mitchell, for instance, was discouraged from applying for any grant funding from the County. "We were told the County usually doesn't fund art, you're wasting your time" applying, Mitchell said.

Ultimately, the County is putting funding into Moogfest, but on an economic development platform, not an arts one.

Fundamentally, going forward, it seems we ought to be looking at all our existing festivals and new ones that come to town (or are born here) as deserving of support on the basis of their economic impact, tempered by the qualitative adjustments needed around actual demonstrated funding gaps, impact of sponsorship, etc.

The first model that comes to me is more akin to the new Durham Sports Commission, which BOCC'er Wendy Jacobs talks about emphatically as a way both of improving recreation facilities and opportunities as well as attracting economic impact.

It's a virtuous cycle, Jacobs told BCR during the BOCC candidate interviews. Create funds to apply for major sports events like high school or AAU tournaments; use the revenue those events bring to recruit other events and to help fund improved sports facilities in the community; and create more events in county so youth and families don't have to travel to enjoy sports competitions, while drawing more visitors to the community.

It's not obvious that we need what OEWD's Dick noted might turn into "another layer of bureaucracy" in considering events. Yet it also strikes me that the sort of synthetic TIF model we've used for downtown development -- where the City incentivizes those activities by offsetting incremental tax revenue after a project's completion with ex post facto grants to the developer -- is a good model for thinking through events like AOC and Moogfest alike.

As Dick pointed out in our interview, the synthetic TIF model would have to factor back out what portion of local tax dollars go to various recipients, since the City doesn't benefit from all of it -- though in some ways, a model that could pull the County forward as a deeper supporter in this than they've been with Moogfest would be welcome.

Ultimately, Durham chose to go after an opportunity that presented itself outside of the usual process, which helped us land Moogfest. That's not inequitable; that's being entrepreneurial.

The next step is to translate the one-time get to a better process for all.

"I don't think it's a race thing," Mitchell said in talking about the process of applying for funding. "Being a statistician, I would love to see some performance metrics" about how much each festival or program should receive.

I think Mitchell's right on target there. As it happens, the metrics that help justify Moogfest's ask are the best argument for AOC, too. 

And here's hoping this leads to a more robust process in the future so that being opportunistic -- that is, taking advantage of opportunity -- doesn't leave some in the community wondering if they're being taken advantage of.


Khalid Hawthorne

Excellent post Kevin...Excellent!!!

I would almost like to see a 2- or 3-year grant for these events. That provides some certainty for the promoters AND their sponsors.

In my opinion, Durham should support AOC at a higher level in order to grow their visitor base. ADF and Full Frame have established themselves...AOC is still a "start-up" that needs capital to grow. And they have a very modest request. BTW we have a hotel tax right???? Is all of that money allocated? What about profits from the DPAC and/ or Bulls? Just questions to make people think...

Scott Harmon

I'm relieved to read this post. I also don't believe this is an equity issue. I do, however, think that equity can, and should be, one of the factors that gets included in a decision to provide public funds. I think both of these things are true: 1) an objective evaluation of economic impact allows the citizens some certainty that the investment of their tax dollars is being spent wisely; AND, it is also true that 2) we can also choose to spend money to help causes and organizations thrive that might not otherwise thrive, because it reflects our morals and integrity as a community. These things are not mutually exclusive. But sometimes the arguments that put a laser focus on equity suggest that they are, and we miss the opportunity to raise the whole community. We need both of these festivals. We should financially support both of these festivals. We should spend more time figuring out how to support and encourage both of them, instead of pitting one against the other in a zero sum paradigm of scarcity.

Dick Ford

@Khalid The City does not make a profit on DPAC. The operators, the Nederlander organization, make a profit and are contracted to share their profit with the City, which reduces the City's expense to fund DPAC. DPAC is a net cost to the City. It has done fabulously, far beyond expectations. However, it remains an economic development cost to the City, a good investment but still a cost.

I am not as familiar with the contract with the Bulls, but would guess net it is a cost to the City.

Inaccurate reporting makes it sound like these ventures produce a profit for the City. They are great economic development tools, but they are investments by the City , not profits. Much like any investment in MoogFest or AOC would be.


One other fact to consider is where the city allocated funds are spent. Some festivals mentioned above spend more than the city allocates renting space from city owned buildings. Full Frame for example rents the Durham Arts Council, Carolina Theatre, Durham Armory, and Durham Convention Center - not too mention off duty police, fire, and EMS. The money given by the city is in reality more like a discount on rent for city owned property.

Tiffany Graves

"I'm pretty convinced that this was never a process that expected or sought to create inequity."
This sentence makes me shiver.
Inequity survives because of the lack of intention. It takes zero effort to maintain. Inequity flourishes when we put other lenses in front of it.
It does not matter if it sought to create inequity. If the result is inequity then there is a problem. I don't really need another lens. This one is too important.

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