Kootenays grappling with festival fatigue

Star belly Jam, The Kootenay Storytelling Festival and The Kootenay Gutbuster have all been cancelled.

Starbelly Jam, seen here last summer, won’t be back this year. It isn’t the only festival feeling the pinch from volunteer burnout.

Starbelly Jam, seen here last summer, won’t be back this year. It isn’t the only festival feeling the pinch from volunteer burnout.

East Shore communities are reeling from news that both Starbelly Jam and the Kootenay Gutbuster have been cancelled this year, while local festival enthusiasts are brainstorming ways to keep other events from going belly-up.

“Every year at Starbelly the campgrounds are crowded, the bed and breakfasts are packed full and all the stores are open until 9 p.m. every night. It’s definitely going to be an economic shock when it comes to that not happening,” said Gina Medhurst, chair of the Kootenay Lake Chamber of Commerce.

“I know all the Starbelly volunteers felt really bad and it wasn’t an easy decision for them to make. I’d been hearing chatter for two or three months, so I know they spent a long time making that difficult decision.”

While Starbelly organizers didn’t respond to a request for comment, they wrote on their website “we’re kind of victims of our own success.”

“For 16 years our small East Shore community has laboured mightily to host one of the province’s best music festivals. Each year hundreds of beautiful volunteers have stepped forward to make this party happen.”

Unfortunately, this year that won’t be the case.

“We were facing real challenges filling a handful of key management roles that would have allowed us to produce the vibrant, safe and well-organized event that we are famous for,” the notice on the website reads.

‘What can we do to keep them alive?’

Starbelly isn’t the only local festival struggling to stay afloat.

An unintended consequence is the cancellation of the Gutbuster, a comedy festival scheduled to run the weekend following Starbelly in Crawford Bay in July. It’s now been moved to Creston, making the news an economic one-two punch for the small community. But the fact is their volunteer base was exhausted, and they couldn’t fill key positions, most of which were nominally paid.

In Nelson, The Kootenay Storytelling Festival has been cancelled this year, according to organizer Avia Moore, and The Kootenay Spirit Festival’s future is in doubt, according to organizer Trisha Wilson. The Kaslo Jazz Etc. Festival is also struggling with diminishing volunteer resources.

“If it was up to the people who lived here, we would have a festival every single day,” Nelson Kootenay Lake Tourism’s Dianna Ducs told the Star. “But across the board we’re seeing these festivals struggle with volunteer exhaustion. People get exhausted volunteering year after year for little or no pay.”

And she’s not the only one who’s alarmed already she’s hearing concerns from the business community and local government. According to her, though, nobody’s on the same page about how exactly to help.

“We’re trying to start conversations on how we can facilitate and help and enable these festivals to keep going, because they’re a critical part of our community’s fabric. The question is: what can we do to keep them alive?”

Paul Hinrichs, executive director of the Kaslo Jazz Etc Festival, said the trouble is all the work “is on the shoulders of a few.”

“Volunteer burnout is a very real situation. And even if it’s a paid position, often there isn’t enough to make it worthwhile. So you end up with people who are unqualified or just not able to carry the responsibility these huge festivals require.”

And that’s when you run into liability and insurance issues.

Festival association on hiatus

Stakeholders and festival-lovers believe one way to pool resources would be to restart the Kootenay Columbia Festivals and Events Association, a group formerly spearheaded by Corrine Zawaduk of the Shambhala Musical Festival and Jimmie Holland from the Kaslo Jazz Festival.

Both, however, have moved on.

“They started building that bridge and for whatever reason they stopped,” said Hinrichs. “They met regularly. All the other festivals were represented and the directors were there to share their expertise, their resources everything from a volunteer database to fencing to porta-potties and all the things you need to run a successful event.”

He wishes it would come back, something he’s discussed with Ducs and other stakeholders in the area.

“In Kaslo we’re dealing with a festival that’s been around for 25 years, and none of the volunteers that sparked that fire are here anymore,” he said. “It seems like all these organizations are getting a little long in the tooth and there hasn’t been that commitment from the next generation on a broad scale.”

Hinrichs formerly worked at Starbelly and called the cancellation “a wake-up call.”

“Losing Starbelly is a major blow, and I won’t pretend Kaslo’s not in danger of going down the same path. I really hope they do find that resurgence in interest.”

Looking outside the Kootenays

Carla Stephenson of Ymir’s Tiny Lights Festival figures part of the trouble is festival fatigue for audiences in the Nelson area. Her event, now in its fifth year, attracts more than half its visitors from places like Calgary and Edmonton.

“There’s so much great stuff to do here it’s hard to get people to come out and see a band they could see anytime in town,” she said.

Stephenson has already noticed an influx of vendors who formerly relied on Starbelly, and said the cancellation will have similar ripple effects across the Kootenays.

“Starbelly had an awesome family niche, and I think that’s the key. Every festival needs to find its own identity so we’re not competing, and we’re working together to create a creative community.”

Funding is also an issue, as is the business model of the festivals. She believes festivals should pay their staff as they grow to ensure longevity.

“This year we’re paying five times the number of people, which is amazing. I think especially in tough economic times, even a couple hundred or a thousand dollars can be a significant amount of money.”

Stephenson has cultivated relationships with other festivals outside the area, something she encourages other festivals to do.

Building people power

Stephenson, Ducs and Hinrichs all agreed festivals rely on “people power” perhaps too much, and they think it’s time to look at other options. But it’s not clear whether that means appointing a regional festival co-ordinator, sharing resources or throwing money around.

“If festivals say ‘hey, this is what we want to do, this is how much money we need,’ maybe we could help them figure out a strong business plan, or how to pay volunteers. Maybe we could provide them with a binder that satisfies initial questions and long-term questions on how to keep a festival running,” said Ducs.

Stephenson said perhaps festivals could find smaller roles for volunteers.

“Civic responsibility is awesome. I think people take these things for granted until they’re gone, so people stepping up and even doing a tiny little thing is really helpful. I think festivals could define small roles for people like three hours of graphic design and use everyone, even if they don’t have the time to volunteer for a big task.”

Ducs thinks funding may be available from institutions like the Columbia Basin Trust, Community Futures and even the City of Nelson. And though there are one-day events like MarketFest in the summer, Nelson currently doesn’t have a full-out festival of its own.

This is something Hinrichs has tried to address in the past, going so far as preparing to pitch council last year.

“I walked away because it was too much. The city wasn’t interested in taking on any liability,” he said, though before quitting he developed a security plan and liaised extensively with Selkirk College about venues.

“It should have been Nelson and Selkirk doing this festival, then hiring somebody to run it. Then you’ve got government funding instead of it being an entrepreneur or local business.”

That’s his dream.

“It would be nice to have a proper, Nelson-run, government-funded arts festival that has unanimous support.”

But at the moment, that doesn’t look likely.


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