Costs and the coronavirus could spur change of venue for Festival International in 2021

Photo by LeeAnn Stephan

Correction: This article previously reported that Festival International was conceived to help address Lafayette’s economy during the oil bust. That is incorrect. Festival was intended to help revitalize Downtown, according to Phil Lank, a founder and then head of Lafayette Community Development. This story has been updated.

Grappling with enduring logistical challenges, Festival International is weighing new locations for 2021, which may see the signature event move from Downtown. Festival staff members are sketching out alternatives that would allow the internationally acclaimed event to function in a socially distanced environment. That could even mean hosting Festival out of city limits or in scattered locations. 

A change of venue for Festival, which attracts approximately 400,000 people each year, has long been a topic of discussion. But uncertainty about the pandemic has made moving, or even a multi-venue approach, more realistic possibilities. Earlier this year Festival went virtual, and since then Executive Direct Scott Feehan says he and his staff have workshopped how to move forward in 2021, drawing up a range of configurations, including a move or an expansion to Youngsville. 

“One end is Festival in all its glory. The other end is no Festival, with virtual Festival in between. We’ve been doing our due diligence. In that spectrum, we’ve looked at outside of Downtown. One of the potential venues is Youngsville, among others,” Feehan says. 

Five months out from its regular time slot in late April, Festival still faces a lot of uncertainty, Feehan continues. International travel is still problematic. Getting artists booked through on tours, an essential way of making the finances work for international musicians, is up in the air. And it’s unclear what the curve of the pandemic will be this spring. Cases have again begun to rise in Acadiana, while other parts of the country are seeing dramatic spikes. Cramming thousands of people Downtown while Covid rages may still be dangerous, and enforcing social distancing for throngs of festival-goers could be next to impossible. 

Open spaces that could accommodate defined “pods” for small groups or families are a possibility. To find big greens, Festival would have to look beyond Jefferson Street. And that could make it unrecognizable, Downtown advocates say. 

“The model [for Festival] was to put it in an urban area and put it in an environment that made it unique,” says publicist Julie Calzone, a Downtown business owner and one of Festival’s founders. “If you take this thing and put it in a parking lot or a field, it’s not Festival.” 

Feehan met with Downtown’s nonprofit board Wednesday afternoon. He has also spoken with both Mayor-President Josh Guillory and Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter. Ritter says he and Feehan have had only “conceptual” discussions about a move or expansion to Youngsville. Guillory could not be reached for comment. 

Finances have been tough for Festival for the last few years. While it boasts a massive economic impact of $40 million, hard costs have been difficult to manage as major donors receded. Festival staff mulled cutting stages and slimming down operations in 2017, trimming roughly $400,000 off of a $1.5 million budget to balance the books after the oil bust killed sponsorships in big numbers. 

This year, Gullory cut LCG’s contribution to Festival. Guillory campaigned on reducing public spending to “non-essential” programs, following through in his first adopted budget with severe cuts to the arts. 

Conceived as a way to help revitalize Downtown in the late 1980s, Festival has counted on taxpayer dollars to help foot the bill, although public funds have come to make up a much smaller portion of its budget over the decades. In 1987, Festival’s birth year, city government kicked in $75,000, then about half the event’s budget, and maintained roughly that allotment annually, on top of in-kind contributions in the form of police details, utilities and other public services. Added together, the public package has amounted to roughly $200,000 in contributions. 

“As far as [direct] city funding goes … it was never intended that this would be sustained with public funding long term,” Calzone says of the early cash grants, which have continued. But the in-kind contributions were always part of the pro forma. 

Festival’s budget ballooned over the years as its programming scaled. LCG’s annual grant dipped to roughly $50,000 in 2018, when then Mayor-President Joel Robideaux tightened the belt across all of consolidated government.

This year, Guillory cut grants to external arts agencies by half, dropping LCG’s direct contribution even further, and also halved in-kind funding for police security for Festival International. The councils restored some funding pulled from the Lafayette Science Museum and the Heymann Performing Arts center, but left the cuts to Festival International intact. 

A move out of Downtown could be devastating for business owners in the area, already hard hit by lockdowns and depressed activity. Restaurant and bar sales in the city of Lafayette have improved but not recovered since the bottom dropped out in March and April. Downtown Development Authority CEO Anita Begnaud says the district has been resilient, adding 20 new businesses in 2020 despite the downturn. In her mind, Festival and Downtown are inextricable. 

“I don’t think it’s any secret that Festival International is a central part of why businesses choose to locate Downtown. It is an incredible economic driver for Downtown Lafayette and frankly all of Lafayette,” Begnaud says. “Downtown is the ecosystem of Festival. A concert in a field in Youngsville or any other location is not Festival.”

Festival’s virtual pivot was heralded by its peers. While drawing a much smaller audience than the hundreds of thousands that descend on Downtown, the mix of archived and recorded programming brought some normalcy to Lafayette at a dark and confusing time. It became a blueprint for other festivals and public events. Festivals Acadiens went virtual in the fall, with guidance from Festival International staff. 

Begnaud says Downtown is “bullish” about keeping Festival an asset for Downtown and the city of Lafayette. Feehan committed to more meetings with Downtown reps and stakeholders to game out scenarios that at least include Downtown as a site. A move, in other words, is not a done deal.

Still, whatever the constraints or concerns, Festival could continue to look very different in 2021.