ST. JOSEPH – Will it stay or go? The Venetian Festival faces an uncertain future after 70 percent of registered voters and business owners who were surveyed in St. Joseph said they want the city to stop giving the festival money.
The city gives the Venetian Fest $23,000 each year to pay for things like public safety, including police and fire. The city voted to cut that funding Monday night. But festival organizers say that doesn’t mean the festival is done. They also claim those survey results don’t tell the whole story.
Quiet September days in St. Joseph are a far cry from the packed streets and beaches you'll find in mid-July – when the Venetian is in full swing.
“As a taxpayer, it’s difficult for us to feel like we’re paying for all the cleanup and security,” said St. Joseph resident Fred Hemsath.
Police Chief Mark Clapp told WSBT the Venetian Fest has more property crimes, more malicious destruction of property and more alcohol-related crimes than any other St. Joe event.
But Clapp, Hemsath and others who live and work in St. Joe said they don't necessarily want the festival to go away.
“The goal is to make it fit the community,” Clapp added.
“It’s been a good festival for years,” Hemsath said. “I think maybe make it a little smaller and not extend it so long.”
But the festival's entertainment chair claims it's already half the size it used to be. Gayle Olson said ten years ago the four day event easily drew at least 100,000 people and this year’s crowds topped out around 40,000.
“For it to shrink substantially more pretty much puts it out of business,” Olson said.
Both Olson and festival president Laurie Draper said the surveys sent to registered voters and businesses were a bit skewed.
“It was a very simple, three-question survey asking ‘Should we continue to fund [the festival] at $23 and some odd thousand dollars?’ Which I would answer ‘no’ to that if I was simply asked that,” Draper said.
“This sample is a fairly large sample of registered voters in the city of St. Joe,” Olson added. “Certainly St. Joe is an elderly community. It's noted as one of the best places to retire in America. Certainly we have an older sample size. The festival targets people [ranging in age from] 25 to 50. Always has.”
If the festival ends, Olson said non-profit organizations could take the biggest hit.
“There are many school and church groups right in the city of St. Joe who make thousands of dollars on parking,” he said.
A 1995 study from Michigan State said the festival had a $3.5 million economic impact on the city each year. As for what happens next, Venetian Fest organizers will meet with the city to see if there's any chance of reaching a common ground. The city said it will reconsider the funding cuts if organizers revamp the festival.