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City increases funding for Mariposa Folk Festival

Council will provide more than $160,000 over three years; 'It's an undeniable success,' says Coun. Tim Lauer, who helped bring the fest back to Orillia 20 years ago

Recognizing the Mariposa Folk Festival has become a “national brand” that brings tens of thousands of people into Orillia, city council agreed to up its support of the festival - to the tune of more than $160,000 over the next three years.

During an almost hour-long discussion this week at a budget committee meeting, a majority of city councillors agreed to provide $50,000 in annual funding this year and the following two years, while also waiving about $7,000 worth of annual fees and eliminating the damage deposit users must pay.

In addition, the city will provide $10,000 for a celebration in 2020 that will mark the popular event’s 60th birthday.

In exchange the Mariposa Folk Foundation will provide an annual grant of $20,000 to assist the city with its capital upgrades of the festival’s home: Tudhope Park.

The decision must be ratified at a special budget ratification meeting Feb. 4.

In previous years, requests from festival organizers went through the city’s grants committee.

In 2016, the festival received $25,000, in 2017, the city provided $27,500 and in 2018, that rose to $30,000.

When this year’s request soared to $50,000, it was sent to budget committee for consideration.

While there was a lot of love around the council table for the festival, which had record-breaking attendance in each of its last two years, councillors agreed it was a difficult decision due to the number of unexpected requests for funding from external agencies.

Coun. Ted Emond said “it’s a matter of needs vs. nice.”

He referenced the festival’s “healthy” and “enviable” balance sheet - the festival has more than $400,000 in a ‘rainy-day’ reserve. He said council, typically, is more inclined to provide funding to those with a greater need and he questioned what city funds, specifically, would be used for.

In its earlier pitch to council, officials said they wanted the extra money because they feared further cuts to provincial arts grants and also referenced escalating artist costs and increase competition for bookings.

Coun. Mason Ainsworth said the “folk fest is my favourite event” and he said he would be happy to support a one-time grant to support the 60th birthday bash.

However, he wasn’t in favour of upping the city’s contribution annually, noting that contribution amounts to $27,000 that taxpayers must pay for in 2019.

He suggested organizers simply raise ticket prices by $1 to $3. With 25,000 to 30,000 people attending the three-day event, that would equate to the amount the festival is seeking from taxpayers.

“That would be a much better way to go about it,” said Ainsworth. “I think people would be more willing to deal with that.”

However, two “folkies” on council led the charge to support the festival’s increased request.

Coun. Tim Lauer, who was a driving force behind the festival’s return to Orillia 20 years ago, and Coun. Pat Hehn, who has fond memories of attending the very first Mariposa event, said the event is worthy of the funding increase.

“It’s an undeniable success,” said Lauer.

“They came to us four years ago with a plan and … they talked about improving things and increasing attendance and, to their credit, 2017 and 2018 were both record-breaking years,” said Lauer. “I am of the mind, you back your successes.”

He also credited festival organizers for bringing events downtown during the festival weekend and for the other events it hosts throughout the year.

“I think Orillia owns Mariposa, owns folk music and (there is) all kind of potential to make it a year-round asset,” said Lauer.

Hehn agreed, noting the festival’s soaring attendance numbers and its “impressive” economic impact.

“It’s my favourite festival of the year,” said Hehn. “I was at the first one and I am looking forward to celebrating the 60th in 2020 with style.”

Not everyone sang the same tune.

Coun. Rob Kloostra said he was not in favour of the escalation and wanted to cap the funding at $30,000, while Coun. Jay Fallis and Coun. David Campbell teamed up on a bid to try to reduce the funding to $40,000 annually.

However, in the end, a majority of council supported the $50,000 in annual funding, along with the festival’s other requests.

Mayor Steve Clarke said there might not have been so much “anxiety” about the funding request if there weren’t so many other competing requests.

He said the Mariposa Folk Festival “helps define culture” in the city and is a “significant economic driver … (that) brings tens of thousands of people from the region, the province and, quite frankly, around the world.”

Coun. Ralph Cipolla agreed and touted the “fantastic return on investment,” referencing a study that said the festival generates more than $2.3 million in economic activity.

He said the city’s parntership with Mariposa has also helped breathe new life into Tudhope Park.

“The improvements to the park have been unvelievable,” he said, noting he looks forward to how the new “celebration plaza” will be used by the festival.

The request from Mariposa was one of more than 165 items councillors had to consider as part of its $56-million operating budget. Two days were set aside for the exercise, but there are still several items to be discussed, including contributions to reserves.

Those items have been moved to Monday morning, when council had originally intended to begin discussing the capital budget. Monday and Tuesday have been set aside for the capital budget.

All decisions made by budget committee are not final; they must be ratified at a special meeting for that purpose Feb. 4.

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Dave Dawson

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