County Executive to Eliminate Jazz Festival, Consider Smaller Events

County Executive Marc Elrich will eliminate the Silver Spring Jazz Festival and consider repurposing that funding to a series of smaller events, according to a presentation from Silver Spring Regional Director Reemberto Rodriguez.

Speaking yesterday at the monthly meeting of the Silver Spring Urban District Advisory Committee, Rodriguez said, “As a new administration, we wanted to take a fresh look at some of what we do, and now in my sphere as regional director and Urban District director, we ask, ‘What are you doing that might be done differently?’”

The festival marked its 15th year in 2018 and consistently drew upwards of 10,000 people or more to Veterans Plaza.

Past headliners included Wynton Marsalis, Aaron Neville, Branford Marsalis, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and featured local favorites such as Montgomery Blair graduate Marcus Johnson (a festival co-founder) and the Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band.

The festival was created as a way to draw people to a redeveloping downtown, but, said Rodriguez, “Right now, we have about 10 times more feet on the street than we did 15 years ago.”

He added that the current challenge is to control crowds, especially when there are simultaneous events on Veterans Plaza, Ellsworth Drive, at the Fillmore, AFI Silver Theatre and more.

“We’ve noted through the years that large events, particularly large events that end late at night, simply do not generate [the economic activity],” Rodriguez said. “People come, go to those things and leave. They don’t come and stick around at 10 o’clock and go to the restaurants.”

Rodriguez told the committee that the festival costs the Urban District $210,000 annually, more than half of which goes to salary and benefits for the festival’s program manager.

He pointed out that amount was three times the cost of the annual Thanksgiving Parade, and costs more in resources than the Urban District provides to support every other downtown event (which includes the summer concert series on Veterans Plaza and, to a much lesser extent, Taste the World in Fenton Village).

That funding does not include the costs to the police department to provide security, the Department of Transportation to reroute traffic and bus routes, or the overtime to the Urban District’s Red Shirt team, which provides various support services for events.

“The whole thing of doing big events, in and of themselves, has changed through the years,” Rodriguez said, pointing out that the trend is toward smaller events.

“The iconic Thanksgiving Parade is an amazing example of an investment that sees [a return on investment],” he continued. “For the Jazz Festival, it’s hard to say that $210,000 is how taxpayer money should go for a six-hour concert.

“The Jazz Festival as a key component of the public sector, i.e., county government, i.e., yours and mine tax dollars, footing the bill—it was something that we had to do,” Rodriguez concluded.

There have been no recommendations, cost estimates or decisions made on exactly what those smaller activities would be, though some ideas include:

  • A series of holiday events kicked off by the Thanksgiving Parade and marketing Silver Spring as a holiday destination
  • A monthly public art walk in collaboration with local restaurants and breweries, and
  • Enhancing the summer concerts to include a jazz series.

Rodriguez emphasized that this plan is a budget-neutral recommendation, with no increase or decrease in funding, while the county is looking for something with a higher economic impact.

The full recommendation also reads (emphasis and italics in the original):

“[a] repurpose the position currently producing the Jazz Festival to focus on getting private contribution for The Fund for Montgomery – and the sub-fund exclusively for Silver Spring; and,

“[b] repurpose the non-staff and consulting* expenses currently budgeted to the Jazz Festival to a series of smaller, more impactful programmatic activities.

“(*Some of the consulting expenses would be redirected to the production of the Parade, Summer Concerts and other minor tasks that are currently done by the staff.)”

In addition, there have been conversations within the community about how to better recognize Silver Spring’s African American history, which could include murals, historical markers and similar efforts.

Following Rodriguez’s presentation and a discussion, the committee members voted to create a task force to consider the plan and report back to the full group at its May 16 meeting.

Aaron Neville at the 2010 Silver Spring Jazz Festival. Photo by Mike Diegel.

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