Council, businesses, residents discuss Founders Festival future

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published August 14, 2020

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Since the Greater Farmington Area Chamber of Commerce announced June 29 it was relinquishing its role as owner and operator of the Greater Farmington Area Founders Festival, the festival’s future has been all but certain. 

Now, amidst the uncertainty, the Farmington City Council and community members are weighing in on what’s next for the iconic festival. 

 

Creating a community-led nonprofit 

The evening of July 20, Farmington City Council members gathered to deliberate the future ownership and operations of the Founders Festival. Farmington Mayor Sara Bowman opened the discussion by suggesting the formation of a nonprofit 501(c)3 grassroots organization that would own the festival. 

“At this time, that was our thought process because we’ve seen it grow, and growth can be a great thing, but it can also become unwieldy. What we’ve heard (and) what we’ve seen is the Founders Festival got bigger than itself,” Bowman said. “By dialing it back, and by making it grassroots and making sure we incorporate citizens, businesses and our local organizations, we’ll be able to get that feel back of what the festival’s intention was — to create a summer social gathering for the citizens.” 

Farmington Mayor Pro Tem Joe LaRussa isn’t in total opposition of Bowman’s proposed ownership structure, though he questioned the viability of returning the festival to the community’s control entirely, given it’s been there and been given back before. He also questioned why the city itself wouldn’t want to own the festival, given it owns and runs the Farmington Civic Theater and the Governor Warner Mansion, which he believes they’ve “done quite well with.” 

“This is something that has changed hands quite a number of times for something that’s supposed to be stable and a longstanding part of the community. Any opportunity we have now to really think about the future and how we want to structure it for long-term viability, I think we owe it to ourselves to do the homework,” LaRussa said, adding that he’d like to look into who owns and operates other nearby summer festivals, and what best practices city administrators should think about adopting.

“I just want to make sure before we hand this off to yet another third party, that we’ve done enough homework to know we’re setting it up for success.” 

Bowman believes if the nonprofit group were to create a mission statement and a list of goals and intentions, it may result in a longer, more successful run than the previous volunteer group who retained control. 

“My intention right now is to not have the city of Farmington be the owner of it, just to really ensure we protect our finances,” Bowman said. “The corporation in my mind is a way to insulate and protect our tax dollars.”

LaRussa sees advantages and disadvantages to the nonprofit structure. The advantages, he said, are that a nonprofit organization would be able to solely focus on the production of the festival. The nonprofit may also provide fundraising opportunities that may not be available to municipalities. 

The disadvantages, he said, are the city may end up “at more of an arm's length,” unless they play a role in selecting the leadership of the group. The group also wouldn’t be subject to the same transparency under the Open Meetings Act as a municipal council or commission would be. 

The council met again during a special meeting Aug. 6 to discuss whether they collectively wanted to move forward with the nonprofit creation or set a study session date for further deliberations. 

Council members seemingly agreed establishing a nonprofit may be the best option for the short term, to ensure the festival takes place in 2021, but also agreed discussions about long-term sustainability and alternate strategies needed to occur. 

“If the nonprofit gets us through one or two years and someone comes along and says, ‘Here’s a bigger, better way to do it,’ then fantastic, but my immediate concern is getting a festival for summer 2021 in hopes that it creates a base for longevity, but we’ve clearly seen that nothing lasts forever,” Bowman said. 

The council has not yet set a study session date to discuss the matter further. 

 

Merchants, residents weigh in

Greg Cowley, the owner of John Cowley & Sons restaurant, thinks the DDA should once again own and operate the festival. 

“There’s no need for a third party 501(c)3. There’s just no need for it. (The city) has a DDA director who is anti-festival. She doesn’t want to manage the festival, or manage somebody who manages it, which I think is an abdication of her duties,” he said, adding that he thinks the festival should be handed to Walt Gajewski, the Farmington Farmers Market general manager, to organize. 

DDA Director Kate Knight previously told The Farmington Press that organizing the festival was out of the question for the DDA. 

“We’d be delighted to have some or all within the downtown footprint. We just don’t have the resources to produce it,” she said, adding that the DDA’s staff used to be four times as large as it is now. 

The DDA adapted a more comprehensive economic development plan during the Great Recession, Knight said, adding that “it’s preposterous” to claim she’s avoiding her duties to produce the festival. 

“We obviously love hosting events. We have on our current slate very successful events, which spawned out of that Founders (Festival) tradition,” she said, pointing to Art on the Grand and the Harvest Moon Festival. 

Currently, the DDA’s work plans, investments and staff time are informed by collaborative developments set forth by the DDA and the City Council, Knight said. She encourages anyone interested to be involved in planning the festival’s future. 

Farmington Brewing Co. owner Jason Schlaff supports the formation of a nonprofit group to run the festival. 

“I think that would put the best interest of the community first, and showcase our wonderful downtown and all the unique shops and stores more readily,” he said, adding that the one thing he doesn’t want to see is a private outside vendor handling the festival. 

He also suggested to city administration that they contact the Michigan Brewers Guild for guidance, who has put on successful community-focused events in the past. 

LaRussa shared a poll Aug. 11 on Facebook seeking input from residents of both Farmington and Farmington Hills about how they’d like to see the festival structured, as well as why they attend and some of their fondest memories.

The poll can be viewed at https://poll.app.do/founders-festival-community-feedback.

 

Downtown, downtown, downtown 

Though not everyone may agree who should be the next owner of the festival, there seems to be a wide consensus that the festival should return to its downtown roots. 

“I think the festival should be downtown to support the business community, which has always been the solution. Anything that brings a quarter million people to the downtown is great advertising for the downtown and businesses, regardless of what anybody else thinks around here,” Cowley said. “There’s a few businesses that think it inhibits their business, but the overwhelming majority of businesses down here get a lift out of the marketing.” 

Cowley also believes the benefits and proceeds of the festival should be used to further support downtown activities, such as the farmers market, not as profit for third parties involved in its organization. 

“I’d love to see the entire downtown blocked off with controlled access so we can walk around with drinks and have a nice family-friendly, but still responsible adult beverage situation. That’s sort of a dream,” Schlaff added. “Will that happen? Probably not in any reasonable time frame.” 

Regardless of the direction the festival goes, Farmington resident Sheree Glynn — who compiled 25 signatures this past Feb. from business owners stating they wanted to see the festival return to downtown — just wants to make sure the festival doesn’t disappear entirely. 

 

The next steps 

Bowman said she’s moving forward, with a majority agreement from her council colleagues — Council member Maria Taylor and Steve Schneemann both support a nonprofit structure; Council member David DeLind was absent — with discussions with Farmington’s city manager and city attorney on submitting paperwork for a nonprofit. 

That’s about as far as the conversation has gone. The process of how members of the group would be chosen is still up for discussion, as is the hierarchical structure of the group itself. 

Bowman has received, and is currently “securing some verbal commitments from key members” of the community. Some of those include The Farmington Area Optimists Club and the Groves-Walker American Legion. 

Farmington Hills representatives could not be reached for comment by press time. 

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