Elvisfest's future in question after shift in management, loss of seed money
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include additional financial information provided by Depot Town Community Development Corp. Director Erik Dotzauer. Earlier, the story was updated to include the fact that the Depot Town Community Development Corp. will provide Elvisfest with a $1,000 sponsorship.
The Michigan Elvisfest as it's currently known may have taken its final bow.
The future of the annual festival in Ypsilanti's Riverside Park is in question after the corporation that oversaw its finances recently opted to stop funding the event. But that group, the non-profit Depot Town Community Development Corporation, is keeping approximately $44,000 that was in the Elvisfest’s bank account.
Some volunteers who organized and operated Elvisfest are upset they aren't receiving any of the money and contend those funds were at least in part generated through their efforts in running the festival.
The event cost approximately $72,000 to organize last year, and the roughly 20 core volunteers are attempting to raise part of that amount in time to hold it in some form in 2011.
“I was not real happy about what happened, especially since the money came from ElvisFest profits at some point,” Elvisfest Director Mary Decker said of the money in the ElvisFest account. “I still don’t understand it, but I think they want (Elvisfest) to succeed, they just don’t want to do it themselves. If that’s really, truly what they’re saying, it would be nice if they could give us at least some money. It would make our lives a little easier, but either way, we're going to proceed.”
Records show the Elvisfest remains profitable, though all parties involved say revenues have been declining in recent years.
CDC Director Erik Dotzauer emphasized Elvisfest revenues and other money the CDC generates belong to the corporation — not the volunteers or the Elvisfest. He said the Elvisfest is a fundraiser that raises money for CDC projects, and the event's organizers were always aware of that.
The CDC, whose parent company is the Depot Town Association, shares those revenues and other fundraising dollars among the initiatives it undertakes, Dotzauer said. The CDC's core mission is improving and promoting economic development in the Depot Town area.
"The money raised by the Elvisfest was not 'The Elvisfest's' money or (Decker's) money," a statement from Dotzauer and CDC board members read. "It was always the DTA/CDC's money. This has always been the case. Any other assertion made contrary to these facts amounts to a deliberate falsehood."
Dotzauer said the Depot Town Association provided funds — although a sum much less than $72,000 — to start Elvisfest 11 years ago. He added the corporations, not the volunteers, assume the risk of the festival losing money.
Decker said the volunteers aren't paid and have taken care of the event's operations and management. That includes arranging the entertainment, vending, food and beer sales, managing volunteers, arranging the VIP section, renting what’s needed for physical infrastructure, providing security and ticket vendors and setting up stage and sound.
Decker said she and several other volunteers work with the CDC to manage the budget, and the CDC collects the money and handles the finances. The Depot Town Association managed the Elvisfest’s finances until it created the CDC three years ago.
Income for the two corporations is drawn largely through festival revenues and charity events.
In recent years, the Depot Town Association and CDC have undertaken efforts including renovating the Depot Town caboose, managing popular events at the park, installing the Cross Street clock tower and repairing the deck on the Huron River. The group briefly took over parks from the city maintenance and management until a dispute ended that arrangement.
A Depot Town Association financial statement shows the organization has lost $23,000 through October. Dotzauer, who reports to the Depot Town Association as the CDC’s director, said that financial situation prompted the CDC to reconsider holding Elvisfest.
Dotzauer said the approximately $44,000 pulled from the Elvisfest bank account will go into a reserve account and earn interest for other projects. He said the CDC is preparing several new efforts for 2011. Among them is a program that will help attract and retain businesses in the Cross Street corridor, but Dotzauer said it's too early to offer details.
The largest CDC fundraising initiative was launching the Michigan Roots Jamboree two years ago. According to Depot Town Association financial records, the rock and bluegrass festival lost $6,000 in 2010 — it brought in $42,200 but cost $48,000. Dotzauer said the financial statement doesn’t include some sponsorship money the Jamboree has yet to receive, and he estimates the event turned a profit and made more than the Elvisfest.The financial statements listed the Elvisfest expenses at $72,000 and revenue at $78,000.
But Dotzauer said that statement doesn’t provide a complete picture of the expenses and revenue for the festivals. Spreadsheets he provided show Elvisfest made $3,771 and the Roots Jamboree actually made $2,253 this year. The document indicated the Elvisfest profit included $2,000 from the sale of a trailer after the festival.
Dotzauer said the CDC chose to cancel the Elvisfest instead of the Roots Jamboree, despite the $12,000 difference in revenue, because festivals typically see a spike in attendance and profits in their third year. He said he expects this year’s Jamboree to post significantly better numbers.
Dotzauer also pointed to corporate sponsorships. Financial records indicate the Elvisfest brought in $500 in sponsorship revenue, while the Jamboree received $6,700 — which Dotzauer said will likely climb closer to $9,000. In the CDC's statement to AnnArbor.com, Dotzauer described the decision to discontinue funding ElvisFest as one the CDC "has been struggling with for years" and was necessary given the financial situation.
“For us, it comes down to a business decision,” he said. “Our goal is to promote the community and add to its vibrancy. We need to be able to make some kind of return or generate enough money without jeopardizing the health of the organization. So we made the tough decision to try to refocus the organization and try to find better use of money.”
Decker is determined to see the Elvisfest continue. She pointed out that many of the estimated 5,000 to 6,000 guests who attended last year’s three-day event were from out of town, and that equates to a healthy economic boost for the community.
She said the group has already picked up more sponsorship money than it did last year, and she's hopeful the picture will improve once ticket pre-sales start in January. The CDC will provide a $1,000 sponsorship and is allowing the new group to use all of Michigan Elvisfest's intellectual property at no cost.
“It’s going to be a challenge, especially because the economy is not that great,” Decker said. "But I know people really enjoy Elvisfest, people want to see it continue and the volunteers are helping out as much as they can. We all are pitching in and hopefully we’ll be able to get some sponsors who can provide some money or provide some things that will save us on some costs.”
Tom Perkins is a freelance writer for AnnArbor.com. Reach the news desk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2530.