‘Dueling’ downtown festivals: The rest of the story

Logo for Northern Appalachian Folk Festival created by James P. “Jim” Dougherty.

An Opinion

By Tony DeLoreto

INDIANA – A recent account of last month’s sixth annual Northern Appalachian Folk Festival only scratched the surface of the reported dueling between festival organizers.

The two organizations have a common origin in former Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor James P. “Jim” Dougherty. But now they compete in conflict.

They are:

— the Northern Appalachian Folk Festival Inc. (NAFF Inc.),  a non-profit group founded by professor Dougherty and me, and

— the Northern Appalachian Folk Festival (NAFF), sponsored by Downtown Indiana Inc., a lobby group for the borough’s central business district.

The organizational names and goals may seem identical. But appearances can deceive. What is clear behind the scenes is a willful failure to communicate by Downtown Indiana Inc.’s board president.

The communication breakdown surrounding this year’s festival fits a pattern of failure by the business group’s current leadership, and it reflects a troubling lack of vision for the future of the downtown business district.

 

THE DUELING among festival organizers began a year ago during a meeting to review the 2017 folk fest. Conflict quickly arose over the festival’s name.

Logo for Downtown Indiana Inc., a lobby group for merchants in the central business district of Indiana, Pa.

In the first minute of discussion, I made it very clear that NAFF Inc. – the group that professor Dougherty and I formed, that originated the festival, that named it and framed its educational and cultural context — was willing to work with NAFF and its merchant members to make the best festival we can for the residents of Indiana, its downtown businesses and festival-goers throughout the region.

But after 90 minutes of discussion, Downtown Indiana Inc., two attorneys on NAFF’s board of directors and NAFF’s director made it very clear that their only objective was for NAFF Inc. to yield our name to them.

We refused.

The NAFF name is the intellectual property of professor Dougherty. He is an historian of Northern Appalachia, its people and its culture. His goal is to ensure that their traditions are celebrated. He created the festival and remains the creative force behind it. He put up the money to design a logo. He worked with IUP to emphasize the event’s educational value.

Dougherty paid $1,500 for a festival web site. Downtown Indiana Inc. kicked him off the site early this year and changed the password so he could not get back on it. The business group refused to reimburse the $1,500 when I asked them in spring 2018. Instead, Downtown Indiana Inc. claimed the website as its own because it paid a $10 fee to renew the domain name in 2017 and 2018.

 

HOW DID WE GET entangled with this hostile business group? We invited Downtown Indiana Inc.’s participation to use its non-profit status. In the event’s early years, we had relied on IUP’s institutional support as a public university and as Daugherty’s former employer. However, money raised through sponsorships and donations had to be funneled through the Foundation for IUP, a group whose focus is much broader than our festival. So, we asked Downtown Indiana Inc., a group we thought would be more closely aligned with ours, if we could use their non-profit status for the 2016 festival.

Downtown Indiana agreed. But under the business group’s guidance, the festival quickly took a step backward. For 2016, Downtown Indiana decided to eliminate the local bands that had performed on Friday night to huge crowds.

Logo for Northern Appalachian Folk Festival sponsored by Downtown Indiana Inc.

Instead, Downtown Indiana decided to book a band from outside the region. Downtown Indiana paid more money for that one band than they could have paid for as many as five local bands. Few people were familiar with the outside band, so there wasn’t much of a crowd.

In 2017, instead of bringing back local and regional bands, Downtown Indiana decided to eliminate Friday and to add Sunday to the two-day festival. Attendance was even worse than 2016’s. Maybe 100 people watched the headliner for the Sunday show. Vendors reported doing 90 percent of their business on Saturday.

This year, NAFF Inc., acting on our own, brought Friday night back to the festival. Up to 3,000 festival-goers filled the 500 block of Philadelphia Street to watch a two-hour performance by local favorites The Clarks, the headliner for our event. And festival-goers enjoyed the benefits of the open-container ordinance that I was instrumental in getting passed by the borough council following the 2017 festival.

 

MEDIA REFERENCES to dueling festival organizers and competing entertainment events might suggest friendly rivalry. But the conflict is deeper than that. Some recent history of Downtown Indiana Inc. provides context.

I was a member of Downtown Indiana Inc.’s board of directors for three years, 2015-2017. I was pretty quiet the first two. But in the third year an issue arose that I didn’t agree with.  It was an attempt to revive the borough’s Business Improvement District, a self-taxation scheme among downtown merchants that had expired in 2016.

The proposed 2017 revival put a new name — Indiana Downtown Improvement Area (IDIA) – on the old scheme. At a Downtown Indiana Inc. board meeting, I was the only board member to express skepticism of the unfair proposal.

A board member seated across from me asked, “Then, what are you doing on the board?” I replied that I am a downtown business owner who thinks Downtown Indiana Inc. should be organized as a membership group, not as a taxing agency. (And I was a Democrat telling that to a Republican.)

Later in 2017, I attended a telephone conference led by a lobbyist who made his living trying to persuade merchants to enter into business-improvement-district agreements with municipal governments. Downtown Indiana Inc. paid this man nearly $17,000 to make his pitch, whether he got an agreement or not.

I expressed opposition to the IDIA proposal. When it came to a vote among downtown property owners in the summer of 2017, it failed by a substantial margin. Downtown Indiana Inc.’s leadership criticized me for my outspoken opposition.

 

BAD BLOOD over the IDIA debate spilled into the Northern Appalachian Folk Festival’s wrap-up meeting in fall 2017 when NAFF – the Downtown Indiana Inc. festival group and its merchant members — announced it had lost $10,000. It marked the first time in the festival’s five years that it had lost money. Downtown Indiana’s board president told me to stop soliciting festival sponsorships on my own, as I had done for the festival’s first four years.

Dougherty thanked the downtown merchants group for their assistance with the festival for their 2016-2017 involvement. But he said we wanted our festival back.

That sparked a screaming match between me, on one hand, and the director of Downtown Indiana Inc. and the president of its board on the other. They blamed me for the IDIA proposal’s failure. The board president demanded my resignation.

I told him he would have to fire me.

I remained on the board and eagerly awaited my divorce from the bullying organization in December 2017, when I quietly completed my three-year term.

 

AFTER OUR SPLIT, Downtown Indiana board members questioned my allegiance to the borough’s business district. Are you kidding me? I bleed downtown Indiana. It has been my life for the past 27 years, and I love it. I have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars back into my downtown Indiana business.

I question the loyalty of Downtown Indiana Inc. board President Malcolm Polley.  The downtown financial institution for which he works contributed zero dollars to the folk fest during his tenure as board president. Meanwhile, his institution’s primary competitor in town has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the festival.

 

DOWNTOWN INDIANA INC. has no right to the NAFF festival. They claimed it out of spite. They should relinquish their claim to the festival’s creator and rightful owner, professor Dougherty.

Moreover, the festival fight reflects something more troubling about Downtown Indiana Inc. – its evident difficulty managing the interests of the central business district in Indiana, Pa., and its need to renew its focus on benefiting all of downtown Indiana.

_____________

Tony DeLoreto is owner of Spaghetti Benders Restaurant in downtown Indiana, Pa. He served on the Downtown Indiana Inc. board of directors from 2015-2017. He is co-founder of the Northern Appalachian Folk Festival.

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