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Burlington Honors Explorer Samuel de Champlain with a Risky Venture of Its Own

Local Matters


Published July 1, 2009 at 7:00 a.m.

Organizers are crossing their fingers — and toes — on the eve of Burlington’s biggest-ever bash in celebration of the state’s Lake Champlain Quadricentennial. The city’s 13-day Vermont International Waterfront Festival, which starts Thursday, is taking place during the steepest economic downturn in 70 years.

The Queen City event will cost about $1.8 million. A total of $1.3 million has been secured from a variety of sources, meaning that half-a-million dollars’ worth of tickets must be sold in order for the event to break even.

That’s achievable as long as the weather cooperates, predicts Burlington City Arts director Doreen Kraft. Tony Bennett’s Flynn show has already sold out, and at least other three acts — The Roots on July 5, Ween on July 11 and Grace Potter on July 12 — will likely play to full houses as well, Kraft adds. The July 9 Buddy Guy and Bettye Lavette show is also selling well, says Jen Crowell, the festival’s ticket manager. If all five of those shows sell the maximum number of tickets, it represents about $575,000 in revenues. Tougher sells are Dan Zanes, Steve Earle and Aimee Mann, and Aurelia’s Oratorio, Crowell reports. That’s reflected in the discounts being offered through the Vermont Arts Council, City Market and Front Porch Forum.

Festival officials are counting on a large influx of tourists to support all the ticketed shows. “Lots of Canadians are coming, I’m positive,” Kraft says. The Lake Champlain Quadricentennial Commission, a state body, has advertised the Burlington festival in Québec media, notes Kraft, who is producing the city’s celebration along with filmmaker and arts presenter Jay Craven.

Visitors from the northeastern states may not be so numerous, however. Vermont tourism promoters have been talking up the Quad in the Boston and New York metropolitan areas for the past six months, but the Globe and the Times have paid scant attention to the Burlington extravaganza.

“With an event of this magnitude in this economy, we really don’t know what to expect,” says Tim Shea, vice president of the Burlington-area Chamber of Commerce and chair of the Quad Commission’s marketing subcommittee.

Shea is not just referring to projected attendance. State officials were taken by surprise as Kraft, Craven and their dozen helpers kept expanding the lineup. The Burlington festival is paying hundreds of artists to participate in some 80 events, most of which are free to the public. “Burlington has gone way beyond our initial expectations,” says Vermont Tourism Commissioner Bruce Hyde.

Investments in the Quad — from Washington, D.C., and Montpelier — were scaled back as the recession worsened. “When we were figuring how much to raise, it was the boom-boom days of 2007,” says Quad Commission board member Chris Roy, an attorney with Downs Rachlin Martin. “The environment became more challenging, and we ended up not doing a lot of fundraising.”

The state is contributing $200,000 to the commemoration of Samuel de Champlain’s 1609 lake voyage, with a portion of that sum earmarked for last month’s Franco-American heritage event in St. Albans and the Festival of Nations scheduled for September in Chimney Point and Crown Point.

As usual, Sen. Patrick Leahy was influential in prying money out of federal coffers for the Vermont event. But the $100,000 committed by the Obama administration is not as much as organizers had hoped to receive, although additional funding may become available later in the year, according to Kraft. Rumors of an actual presidential appearance have been greatly exaggerated. Obama can’t swing a Vermont visit because he’ll be at the G8 Summit. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Québec Premier Jean Charest and New York Governor David Paterson aren’t coming to Burlington, either.

Kraft turned to private donors to finance a sequel to the 1909 Champlain tercentenary, which drew 65,000 celebrants to a July 8 waterfront blowout centered on a speech by President William Howard Taft. The City Arts rainmaker convinced local companies to pour in $700,000.

Burlington itself is laying out $300,000 in taxpayer money. “We were honest when we went before the City Council,” is how Kraft recalls last year’s official request for waterfront festival funding. “We said there was going to be risk involved.”

The council and the Kiss administration responded favorably and without partisan division. Council President Bill Keogh, a Democrat, says Burlington has made a wise investment. The festival will ramp up receipts from the city’s rooms-and-meals and sales taxes while also generating long-term PR benefits, Keogh suggests. Burlington could also recoup some of its $300,000 outlay if the festival actually turns a profit.

The city was inspired to go all out for the anniversary because “it only comes around every hundred years, and this is our time,” Kraft explains. The Queen City’s Quad was also conceived as something of a coming-out celebration after eight years of hunkering down in Bush’s America, Kraft adds. Besides, she notes, “This is a city that loves to party, especially for a purpose.”