When the Cherry Blossom Festival officials put money into reserve funds, they really are saving for a rainy day.
In 2008, a deluge canceled the street party after days of rain that cut crowds at other money-making events. The $125,000 loss washed away the festival’s savings and threatened the future of the city’s signature celebration as the city considered cutting $30,000 from the festival’s share of hotel-motel tax.
“That was kind of a rough time,” said Lee Robinson, the 2010 Cherry Blossom Festival chairman. “It wasn’t long after that Wright Tilley submitted his resignation.”
Fast-forward to 2010 and Tilley’s replacement is sitting pretty. New President and CEO Karen Lambert is looking at a net festival profit of between $130,000 and $140,000, from which the organization’s salaries and administrative bills will be paid. Plus grants of $50,000 from the Fickling family and $250,000 from the Peyton Anderson Foundation will be used to grow the festival and stage new events throughout the year.
“We have some good figures, I’m very happy to say,” Lambert said Thursday in her office, where a huge Steve Penley painting of downtown Macon in bloom hangs on the wall. “It was an incredible experience — very, very intense during that time period.”
In October, when Lambert rose to the helm of the organization that runs the festival and Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful, most of the planning had been done for 2010.
The 2009 event ended with about $16,000 net profit after rain held crowds down and nearly cancelled the street party again. “(Interim CEO) Jim Davis did a spectacular job of keeping it in the road and used his skills to keep it on track,” Robinson said. “The people voted with their feet. They let us know the festival was very important for this community and not just the people coming in from out of town.”
In the days between Tilley’s resignation and Davis being named interim CEO when the financial picture was at its darkest, the board solidified behind the festival, said Robinson, who was chairman of the board of directors that year. A legacy fund was established, with many board members making contributions to help present the 2009 events as the economy began to skid.
Robinson, festival chairman Steve Jukes and Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful chairman Mark Stevens kept things afloat with the guidance of the staff, Robinson said.
“The good news was the staff never lost a beat,” Robinson said. “They have so much institutional knowledge.”
Now Lambert has spent the past seven months gleaning all she can from veteran employees such as senior event coordinator Connie Thuente, who retired Friday after 20 years. In July, 10-year-veteran planner and merchandise manager Connie Howard also will retire.
The festival staff is being reorganized, with more seasonal and part-time staff and a new vice president of operations, who will be named in the near future to serve as Lambert’s right hand.
Through the summer, Lambert and the board will continue to poll leaders, volunteers and attendees on how the Cherry Blossom Festival can be improved.
The Peyton Anderson grant provides tools to evaluate the festival and the organization to determine how to grow and expand.
“We want to bring people to Macon all the time. We have a great city,” Lambert said.
This fall, the Cherry Blossom Festival will present a one-day event in Central City Park that will coincide with a weekend concert sponsored by another organization in early October. Details are still being ironed out before the announcement, Lambert said.
One of her goals is to partner with more community groups to augment other events, such as was the case for the Cherry Blossom Ball Drop on New Year’s Eve. NewTown Macon’s Kris Hattaway approached the festival last year about the inaugural event that gathered a large crowd to Cherry Street where a lighted orb of pink blossoms dropped at midnight. While NewTown put on that first party, this year it will be the festival’s production.
Vendors may be added and the ball tweaked, but there are no plans at this point to add much else, Lambert said.
One of 2010’s biggest successes came with a new partnership with Macon State College to present Balloons and Tunes. Police estimate a crowd of about 10,000 attended without the parking problems that prevailed at the Shrine Park the year before.
“We got it right on the balloon glow,” Robinson said.
Organizers only had 7,000 wristbands on hand, so an exact attendance figure is not available. Next year, they plan to increase handicap access, increase port-a-potties and spread food vendors out on the campus, Robinson said.
Sponsorships were also up 7 percent this year. Corporate donations are key to providing so many free activities.
Lambert believes some events might shift toward the middle of the week next year to accommodate tour groups. Change is necessary to keep the festival vibrant, she said.
“Everybody has their favorites,” she said. “But on the other hand, I have not spoken to one person who says they want to keep it just the way it is.”
She is considering moving the fashion show to the evening to make it an event for couples and creating a new event for the luncheon crowd. Changes are also expected for the ball, she said.
Robinson would have loved to keep the air show on the calendar this year, but weather made the event too risky considering the expense.
In the coming weeks the board will decide how much of the profit will be put in reserves.
“Bill Fickling says we need $300,000 in the bank,” Robinson said. “He’s kind of my conscience reminding me to put that money aside.”
Robinson sees a silver lining to those dark days of 2008 as the community really showed him they want to keep the festival.
“Karen is in a wonderful position to take the festival forward. Everybody is positive about the festival,” Robinson said. “The festival has tentacles that go out to an army of volunteers that think of it as their festival. ... We have an obligation to them to take the festival forward.”
Lambert said she will remember this year’s gorgeous blossoms that didn’t quite make it for the beginning of the 10-day event and the beauty of the opening worship service featuring the music of Bobby McDuffie. She won’t be able to forget the stress of the controversy of having a drag queen featured in the fashion show or the finale that fizzled with thunderstorms and a daylight fireworks show that spooked the horses at Wesleyan College.
The storms were a reminder to Lambert of the importance of financial reserves.
“If one thing is for sure, we’ll have rainy days again during the festival, so it’s essential we build that back.”
To contact writer Liz Fabian call 744-4303.