Headliner Popcaan, a Jamaican dancehall artist, drew the largest crowds at last year’s August Emancipation Festival, according to a recently released report. (File photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

After the government failed to provide legally mandated annual reports on Festival spending for three years, Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture Minister Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley recently broke the streak by laying the 2019 budget breakdown on the table during a recent House of Assembly session.

But while the 72-page report includes three pages of broad information on festival finances, it provides few details about who received money or how they were chosen.

Opposition members had requested the report last fall, and the minister said he had it in hand during a Feb. 25 HOA session, though it needed vetting. He laid the report in the House on June 11.

“Let me make it clear that the Festivals and Fairs Act required a report, and we were in contravention of this important legal requirement,” Dr. Wheatley said. “During those years, we did not have a good account of how taxpayers’ money was spent, and [then-Virgin Islands Festivals and Fairs Committee Chairman Carnel] Clyne helped to restore transparency and accountability with this report.”

The 2005 Virgin Islands Festivals and Fairs Committee Act requires the VIFFC to record its financial transactions and to submit a report to the minister of education and culture within three months of the end of each financial year. The minister, in turn, is required to lay the report before the legislature “as soon as practicable,” thereby making it public.

The recently tabled report provides broad details about finances during a year of cost overruns: The VIFFC started the year with a budget of $710,000 from government, which later was upped to $1.3 million before it ultimately topped $1.9 million.

After detailing the ups and downs of each 2019 event, the report provides a three-page financial summary, reporting a total income of $2,717,817 funded mostly by the $1.9 million in government subventions, and total expenses of $2,844,971.

Beyond the government funding, the remaining $784,109 in revenue came from various sources.

The village entrance fee and presold tickets brought in $390,672; the Coney Island amusement venue earned $139,822; sponsors contributed $118,260; village booths and vendors paid $62,424; the Miss BVI Pageant earned $46,565; and the rest came from sources such as the parade entry fee, other pageants and fundraisers.

As for expenditures, $1,239,739.80 was spent on entertainment; $752,579.35 on village infrastructure; $425,396 on events such as pageants and food fairs; and $310,036.85 on “general expenses,” including the past invoices, the report states.

In the end, the festival committee was left with a $127,153.85 deficit.

The budget summary, however, didn’t go into further detail about the individual costs for providers, music acts or other expenses.

Looking back at last year’s festival report, acting VIFFC Chairman Khalid Frett — who took over after Mr. Clyne’s recent resignation (see sidebar) — said the committee learned lessons that will help with planning next year, when he hopes the festivals won’t be marred by a pandemic.

Challenges

The report also included contributions from several subcommittees, including the ones that organised the 65th August Emancipation Festival.

“While there were challenges like the committee obtaining funding later than expected, the committee found ways to manoeuvre around the obstacles and press forward with execution of its assigned task of making the 65th celebration a success,” according to the report.

Weather proved to be one of the biggest challenges, including heavy rain during two nights in Road Town. But interest on other nights was high, with an average nightly attendance of around 2,000, the report noted.

Attendance in Road Town was highest the night Jamaican dancehall artist Popcaan performed, according to the report, which did not mention the total crowd size.

“The negative side of the entertainment was that the Road Town Village Committee had little say when it came to the entertainment selection, stage performance, or riders,” the report states. “This presented a problem because the committee was not able to adequately prepare in advance for village events.”

Dr. Wheatley said in HOA on June 11 that then-VIFFC chair Mr. Clyne occasionally “rushed ahead in some instances where he should have slowed down and involved everyone,” but he did his best given the late start to planning Festival due to a change in government.

Security

Various security concerns were also addressed in the report. The Road Town subcommittee recommended limiting the number of people getting into shows without paying by requiring attendees to get a wrist band at the ticket booth instead of the gate.

Additionally, the report noted problems with security personnel sleeping or drinking while on duty.

Mr. Frett said this was a concern, but added that it’s important to remember that the committee is hiring “people, not robots,” and personnel have to put in many hours during the celebration. He expressed appreciation for security’s promptness in addressing problems last year.

Though the report states that Festival was celebrated “without any major incidents,” it also noted a need for police presence.

“There was one night an incident occurred and no police were present as they left the grounds prior to [the] crowd leaving,” it explains.

Village layout

In the future, Mr. Frett said some changes will likely come to the layout of the Festival grounds. Specifically, he said organisers hope to avoid the issue last year of running out of space for the Coney Island amusement area. Though eight rides were delivered from St. Croix, only seven were functional due to insufficient space.

The report explains that the layout issues came down to miscommunication: “A major problem was that the Road Town Village Committee tasked with the responsibility of managing Coney Island was not given the opportunity to be involved in the negotiation process as all negotiations were handled by VIFFC’s executive chairman. … Proper communication needs to be implemented next year at all levels.”

Despite the planning hurdles, the subcommittee lauded Coney Island as a “major success” that could raise more money in the future by remaining open after the August Monday Parade and on the following Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Parade

The Parade Subcommittee reported that the August Monday Parade and Rise and Shine Tramp were well attended, but the parade started several hours behind schedule because the requested road closure didn’t happen in time.

The parade could potentially shift to the last Saturday of the emancipation celebration week “as a means to end the activities on a high note,” according to the report, which added that more performers might participate if the tramp and the parade were held on different days.

The Calypso Show subcommittee recommended hosting semi-finals a month ahead of the finale to allow for greater promotion. Additionally, it suggested rescheduling the date to boost attendance, and adding a Junior Calypso Show to get future generations involved.

The Soca Monarch Subcommittee reported that last year’s show was “very entertaining,” but more time was needed between the show and the deadline for song submissions to boost public engagement. It also proposed introducing a Junior Soca Monarch competition.

Easter Festival

The subcommittee that plans Virgin Gorda Easter Festival reported a large turnout last year despite relatively low involvement from the business community and late funding from government.

Because of the funding delays, the executive of the VG subcommittee had to use personal funds to secure performer appearances, according to the report.

Last year was also notable as the VG Food Fair relocated to the lower field of Rosewood Little Dix Bay Resort, and community members reportedly enjoyed the larger, enclosed venue.

“The VIFFC executive should be working with the subcommittee as all have the same goal to accomplish,” the report advises, after describing how the VIFFC chair and his team collected the funds raised from the Easter festival. “Proper and positive communications with all members of the team as well as respect for and collaboration with the VGFC’s and other subcommittees’ systems, processes and methods are essential to positive movement forward.”

East End

The East End/Long Look Subcommittee said some events like the Mr. & Ms. Junior BVI Pageant are steadily gaining popularity, and the Festival of Culture and Praise continues to remind visitors of “all of the rich history and heritage that is vested in the community,” according to the report.

Nevertheless, it added, more needs to be done to build up the reputation of East End events.

The subcommittee also noted scheduling conflicts with the annual beach picnic and boat races at Long Bay.

“Even more astounding is that government financially supports this private event, while it has never given any consideration to including the prizes for the participants in East End/Long Look’s annual budget,” the subcommittee reported.

Of all the Festival events, the subcommittee said musical performances remain the biggest draw, and East End aims to host entertainers of the same calibre as anywhere else.

“Unfortunately, and this is a trend that has been [observed] for the past few years, persons appear loath to come to East End in spite of who is performing,” the report states.

Finding community sponsors also remained a challenge.

Mr. Frett said the VIFCC will consider rescheduling some East End events in the future, and hopes to help develop a better reputation.

Carrot Bay

The Carrot Bay Cultural Fiesta last year included a market day, other cultural activities, a fishing tournament and regional entertainment.

The report noted that participation in the Oliver “Oli” Turnbull Fisherman’s Tournament was low due to inclement weather, but interest remained high. Organisers sought an additional $100,000 from government to support events in the future.

“Funding should be available early to secure featured artists and finalise the planning of the festivities,” the report adds.

Recommendations

As part of the VIFFC’s recommendations for the way forward, it developed financial protocols for more responsible and transparent spending, which the committee board hopes to adopt, according to the report.

The VIFFC also advised booking hotels and flights for performers earlier for lower rates — $239,059.16 was spent on flights and $107,928.80 on accommodations — and buying assets when the cost is cheaper than renting.

In another effort to lower costs, the Festival subcommittee recommended bolstering outreach to local vendors who might be able to provide entertainment like games of chance at Coney Island rather than outsourcing.

“A large percentage of the VIFFC funds go towards the rental of many equipment including tents, chairs, coolers, road cones, decor, furniture,” according to the report. “It is done at rates where we pay more for these items for the period of the events than the cost of the items.”

The committee could even generate revenue by purchasing these items outright and then renting them out throughout the year, the report noted.

It also stated, however, that a large amount of committee-owned electronic equipment was stolen last year, though it did not estimate the value.

“The board of the [VIFFC] must safeguard its assets,” the report advised. “It is recommended that an asset registry be developed.”

The committee also recommended a stipend be paid to board members.

Additionally, the report noted the challenges of being displaced from needed office space by the Department of Culture. Mr. Frett said it would be helpful to have a dedicated workspace as plans get under way for next year’s events.

He added that safety is paramount this year even though it is discouraging that some typical Festival events are impossible to hold because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s very important that we get the opportunity even on a small scale to celebrate our emancipation,” he said.


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