Note: This story was last updated at 10 a.m.
A rumor that circulated widely this month said this was going to be the last year for the Secret City Festival.
But city officials said it’s premature to say that.
It is true that a Special Events Advisory Task Force has been studying changes to the annual festival, including moving it from June and making it into an expanded celebration in the fall, starting in October and continuing through Veterans Day (November 11). It could be renamed the Secret City Celebration, implemented by a new nonprofit expected to become self-sustaining within five years, and add events while continuing to include the Secret City Festival.
At a Wednesday evening meeting, Task Force members said many of the current festival activities could continue, including music, World War II re-enactments, historical displays, and children’s activities. But they also said there could be opportunities for new partnerships with other organizations, including Wounded Warriors and Oak Ridge Playhouse. And it’s not clear that the Secret City Festival would continue to be a two-day event.
Task Force members say they’re hoping to help create something bigger and better.
“This committee is not recommending the demise of the Secret City Festival,” Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn said after the meeting. Baughn is chair of the Task Force.
The nonprofit would continue the festival tradition, and the celebration would be longer, she said. Its theme could be to honor all veterans, and it could, for example, feature week-long events.
“The city is evolving,” Task Force member Mike Brown said. “We have to evolve too.”
The group’s six recommendations have not yet been presented to the Oak Ridge City Council or approved by city officials. The Task Force’s last meeting will be in July, and a report could be presented to City Council in August.
Those who pronounced the festival dead after this year said there is no money in the budget for the two-day event in 2016. While the budget proposed by the Oak Ridge city staff does reduce spending for festivals and special events, it hasn’t been approved by the Oak Ridge City Council. And Council members would presumably want to weigh in on any decision to continue or end the annual festival, the city’s largest.
It’s also not clear whether there might be another revenue stream that could replace the annual city funding. Besides the city money, there are also corporate sponsorships, concert ticket sales, and vendor and exhibitor fees.
Some current and former City Council members have raised questions for several years about the festival’s return on investment. They have pressed for a more precise accounting of the festival, including its revenues and expenditures, and information on whether it makes a profit or loses money. Baughn said the festival is not bringing in real substantial revenues, but as they study changes, officials are trying to capitalize on the many great ideas that people have.
During the Wednesday evening meeting, Task Force members agreed that the mission of the proposed new nonprofit should be to promote, honor, and advance the history, arts, and culture of Oak Ridge, either directly or in cooperation with other organizations. Task force members are using the Dogwood Arts Festival in Knoxville as a model.
They recommended that City Council appoint the new nonprofit board in October, or one year ahead of the new celebration. The proposed date change means that there might not be a Secret City Festival in June 2016, if Oak Ridge City Council members agree with the recommended date change.
Several Task Force members said the date change could help the festival. Here are some of their reasons: It is cooler in the fall, children’s groups could be integrated, it could be coordinated with the schools’ two-week fall break, and it could tie into other local events, including Wounded Warrior and Fall Jamboree events at Windrock Mountain north of Oliver Springs and the Secret City Head Race at the Oak Ridge rowing course. There are also the beautiful fall colors in East Tennessee, and vendors from the former Foothills Fall Festival, which ended last year, need a place to go, Task Force members said.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Comfort Inn Sales Director Kate Groover said of the proposed date change. “I think there will be more wanting to come.”
Officials suggested the date change could provide some separation between the Secret City Celebration and other events in the late spring and early summer. Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch said there are four festivals within about five weeks that the city helps promote: the Dragon Boat Festival in late May, the Lavender Festival and Secret City Festival in mid-June, and Independence Day fireworks on July 4.
“It’s jam-packed,” Gooch said. There are other events later, but the festivals themselves aren’t as big, he said.
From a practical standpoint, “if we could spread things out somewhat, it would be easier on the city staff and others,” Gooch said. Sponsors and organizers may feel differently, but it would be good to at least discuss the proposed changes, he said.
Gooch said this year’s Secret City Festival landed on the same weekend as the Bonnaroo music festival in Manchester, Tennessee, although the two festivals may attract different people. Still, Oak Ridge Today talked to one mother at the Secret City Festival whose daughter was at Bonnaroo that weekend.
Gooch said other venues in other cities with other events help defer or take on the costs of the cities involved. He cited the CMA Music Festival in Nashville as one example, although he said he wasn’t necessarily comparing the Secret City Festival and the country music festival.
The mayor said this year’s Secret City Festival was a huge success.
“I think that was related to the quality of the entertainment,” Gooch said. Good weather helped, he said.
Organizers reported that concerts by the Marshall Tucker Band and Three Dog Night this year attracted the highest number of spectators in festival history.
Groover said the Secret City Festival in June has had no historical impact on “heads in beds,” or the number of people staying at local hotels and motels. It’s mostly locals attending the festival, Groover said. She thinks the date change could help.
Officials said the current festival is labor-intensive for the city staff. The proposed changes could reduce the workload on the city staff and reduce funding from the city.
Groover is optimistic that combining the Secret City Celebration with other local events such as arts could be a huge draw.
Task Force member Ray Smith advocated for incorporating the Secret City Festival into the new Secret City Celebration. The award-winning festival has a good reputation around the Southeast, he said.
“The brand Secret City Festival has value,” Smith said. The name is trademarked by the City of Oak Ridge.
The Special Events Advisory Task Force was created by Oak Ridge City Council in February. Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson proposed the group to make recommendations to the City Council on planning, funding, and executing special events managed, supported, or sponsored by the City of Oak Ridge.
The group includes one member appointed by each City Council member along with ex officio representation from the American Museum of Science and Energy, Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Recreation and Parks Advisory Board. Besides Baughn, Brown, Smith, and Groover, other members include Charlie Hughey, Michelle Ward, Ben Arnold, and Judy Gray. Staff support is provided through Recreation and Parks Department Director Jon Hetrick.
During a May meeting, Task Force members said the Secret City Festival has a tremendous overall return on investment for the local community, even if it has a financial deficit, but at this point, it does not benefit retailers and hoteliers, according to meeting minutes. Members have raised questions about whether there might be a children’s activity, possibly local science activities, that would draw kids from across the country.
The festival is now presented by the City of Oak Ridge, Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Arts Council of Oak Ridge. Officials suggested those organizations could continue to help with the celebration, although it’s not clear that the city could be directly involved in the new nonprofit since it could seek donations. Task Force members suggested a new 14-member board, with two members appointed by each City Council member, and representatives of community organizations with expertise in certain areas to serve as ex officio non-voting members.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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