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Posted on Tue, Oct 6, 2009 : 12:06 p.m.

Finances forcing Ann Arbor Summer Festival to refocus, trim expenses

By Jenn McKee

Budget problems are forcing the Ann Arbor Summer Festival to make some changes, from less ambitious bookings to cuts in staffing.

After a brutal year of sagging ticket sales (down $255,755 from 2008), corporate sponsorships (down $95,634) and government grants (down $20,723), the festival has cut its small workforce from four to two and moved to a new office (at 310 Depot St., Suite 3) last week, from its former location on Fourth Avenue. The festival recorded a $115,000 deficit in cash operations for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.


The final night of 2009's Top of the Park, the free, outdoor component of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival.

Alan Warren | Ann Arbor News file photo

“For an organization with a $1.5 million budget, that’s significant,” said festival executive director Robb Woulfe. “Luckily, we’d had some good seasons in the past, so we had a small reserve (to cover the deficit). … But a season like this depletes that reserve, leaving us an outdoor event with no rainy-day fund. … It’s definitely been a hard season for us, but we’re keeping it in perspective, and we’re fortunate to have had that reserve.”

The Summer Festival, held each June and July, is an annual, three-week event that offers free, nightly outdoor movies and concerts called Top of the Park, in the Ingalls Mall area; as well as ticketed main-stage events at the Power Center and Hill Auditorium.

Some scaling back of Top of the Park events is possible, especially on slower nights, although that has not yet been decided.

“I think people will see smaller main-stage season, and there will probably be a lot less risk in the shows we’re presenting,” said Woulfe. “Of course, the nature of cultural programming is risky - there’s no formula where I can directly plug in these shows and have a truly risk-free season, but … we have to be cautious going into this next year.

"We cannot be in the same position a year from now. … There’s no room for error or risk.”

In addition, the fest is freezing employee salaries, reducing benefits, and curtailing discretionary spending; plus, the budget for the 2010 festival is a more modest $1.1 million.


Luna "Mama" Walker of Ann Arbor dances to the music at the 2009 Ann Arbor Summer Festival.

Alan Warren | Ann Arbor News file photo

The 2009 festival made gains in beverage sales and individual, on-site donations - which were actively solicited at Top of the Park this year. But these increases couldn’t make up for the fest’s significant losses.

One difficulty is that although Woulfe works year-round to plan, raise money for, and present the three-week festival, but the bulk of the event’s revenue pours in between April and July - from the time that tickets go on sale through the end of the festival.

“It’s a very small window,” said Woulfe. “We receive 70 percent of our revenue in that time frame.”

Woulfe is currently working to establish a matching challenge fundraiser, which he hopes will happen later this fall, but he must also jump right into booking acts for the next festival. (According to Woulfe, most musical groups get plugged into the schedule relatively late in the game - only a few months beforehand - while dance performers and family-friendly acts get booked further in advance.)

Although this process will be far trickier than usual, Woulfe remains generally optimistic about AASF’s future. “We are a strong organization with a resourceful board and experienced management team in place,” Woulfe stated in an e-mail. “As we approach this new fiscal year, we have a lean, balanced budget with a contingency in place to support our number one priority, to replenish our cash reserve and maintain operating liquidity. We are confident that we will show our resilience, and will emerge stronger than ever before, thanks to creativity and community support. Plus, I can now smell bacon (from nearby Casey’s Tavern) every morning from my office window - how great is that?”

If you'd like to contribute to the festival, visit the support page on AASF's site, or

Jenn McKee is the entertainment digital journalist for Reach her at or 734-623-2546, and follow her on Twitter @jennmckee.



Thu, Oct 8, 2009 : 10:39 a.m.

I would scale back the main stage shows, but keep the free outdoor music every night. I love Diana Krall and Pink Martini etc... but personally, I would rather donate $5 at the free event than pay $60 (times 2) at Hill or Power center. I thought the headliner tickets were overpriced this year, which is why I did not attend any of them when I usually do.


Tue, Oct 6, 2009 : 12:40 p.m.

I visited the Ann Arbor Summer Festival this year and cannot believe they spent $1.5 Million! That's $500,000/week for something that really didn't seem to have a big buzz in the town or attract outside visitors. And the headliners weren't free! Another thing, I understand that some acts have to be inside the Power Center for volume reasons, but people want to be outside in the summer.


Tue, Oct 6, 2009 : 11:25 a.m.

I think Top of The Park should bring back Friday and Saturday night movies. Those were always the best attended evenings until they bowed to the pressure of local theaters.