Time is running short for state-run Festival Park

By on May 27, 2013

The park includes an interactive settlement site. (RIFP)

The park includes an interactive settlement site. (RIFP)

Unless there is a change in sentiment as the General Assembly winds down its 2013 session, Roanoke Island Festival Park may be known as “RIP” over the next few years.

Which raises the question of whether a facility that cost close to $10 million of state taxpayer money to build should be left for possible failure under the new realities of a sluggish economy.

In the 2011 session, the General Assembly passed House Bill 22, which said: “Beginning with the 2015-16 fiscal year, the Roanoke Island Commission shall be self-supporting.”

The bill called for  incremental reductions in funding to the state- operated site over the next four budget cycles. The Roaonoke Island Commission is one of the entitites running the facility.

To help plan for the transition, the park and North Carolina’s Department of Cultural Resources engaged a private firm, Shultz & Williams, to devise a four-year plan of financial sustainability that was to be presented to the House and Senate appropriations committees for the 2013 session.

But when Gov. Pat McCrory submitted his 2013-14 budget to the General Assemby this year, he ignored the four-year transition plan passed by the Republican legislature and slashed all state funding for the park.

Thus far, the General Assembly has allowed the elimination of that funding to stand.

The loss of state funding, which amounts to about $1 million in 2013, accounts for almost half of the park’s expenditures, and well more than half of the park’s income.

According to the Shultz & Williams study, those state funds approximate the actual cost of simply maintaining the state-owned facility, a 27-acre site.

The Indoor Theatre features children's shows. (RIFP)

The Indoor Theatre features children’s shows. (RIFP)

The study indicated the annual costs of maintaining the facility (site, buildings, and equipment) totals $953,000. Add in a 3 percent reserve for emergency repair and replacement and the annual cost is $982,000.

Last year, RIFP took in about $390,000 in visitor revenues.

Expenses came to just over $2 million.

But the private study also estimated the total financial impact of the park to be between $6 and $7 million, with much of that money flowing to Manteo and Roanoke Island.

The park is managed by two governing bodies, the Roanoke Island Commission, which was established when the facility was built in the mid-90s, and the Friends of Elizabeth II, established in the 1980s to build and maintain a life-sized working model of the sailing vessel that brought the first English colonists to North America.

The Shultz and Williams study indicated the park and its two governing bodies could do more to enhance locally generated revenues.

It concluded, however, that state revenues of about $1 million annually would always be required in the foreseeable future if the park were to remain open.

The massive facility includes an outdoor amphitheater, the Elizabeth II, a settlement site, an American Indian town, the Roanoke Adventure Museum, a theater which shows “The Legend of Two Path’s” film, the Roanoke Maritime Museum, the Outer Banks History Center and a nature walk that includes a boardwalk.

Off-site, the facility is also responsible for the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse.

The Roanoke Island Commission operates Roanoke Island Festival Park, which includes the Elizabeth II. (RIFP)

The Roanoke Island Commission operates Roanoke Island Festival Park, which includes the Elizabeth II. (RIFP)

Kim Sawyer, the executive director of the park, cites interpretive history aspects of the park as its core mission, the reason the park was created and the primary focus of the RIC.

Each year, thousands of public school students from across the state visit the park and learn about the nation’s early history.

Likewise, the Friend’s core mission began with the Elizabeth II and has morphed into a broader one of providing operating funds to the park when its investment income allows, as well as building a non-profit endowment fund they hope will one day reach $20 million and generate $1 million annually in dividends.

The park is not without its critics, both past and present, and part of that criticism has been directed at what one board member described as “a gift we never asked for.”

Some see that gift, the park’s amphitheater, as an underused facility that could replace the loss of state funds.

Others see it as a distraction from the park’s core mission and claim booking profitable events for the facility is easier said than done.

Certainly, neither governing board saw themselves in the business of operating an outdoor entertainment venue along the lines of Virginia’s “Wolf Trap” or Atlanta’s “Chastain Park.”

While many envision a summer concert series attracting tourists and locals in and off-season, Sawyer pointed out that the Outer Banks’ out-of-the-way location makes it difficult for well-known acts to take a travel detour to the area.

The under-used amphitheater at Festival Park.

The under-used amphitheater at Festival Park.

Summer concerts add another logistical twist relative to finding lodgings for the performers and attracting a tourist population that turns over completely every seven days.

However, critics make a valid point in claiming the venue is seldom used and often offers summer shows on weekend nights, which are turnover days, rather than week nights, when tourists are out and about.

A final worry is the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau project in Nags Head, which is now envisioned as an outdoor entertainment venue that could pit one taxpayer-funded facility against another.

Lee Nettles, the executive director of the Visitor’s Bureau, told the Voice his organization is talking with RIFP and that the bureau wants to “complement, not compete, with the amphitheater.”

Another target of critics involves the enterprise funds that both the RIC and the Friends control.

According to a state review, the Friends held total funds of $7.26 million as of December 31, 2012, while the Roanoke Island Commission’s total fund balances stood at $4.07 million as of June 30, 2012.

Thus, it is true that even if the state cut all funding, the park would not be left destitute.

Once again, critics we spoke to suggested the two bodies should use more of those funds to promote the park and especially the amphitheater for more concerts, seafood festivals and a host of other outdoor events.

In speaking with members of both boards, the assumption that the park can spend its way to self-sufficiency is fraught with risk.

Members of both boards are doubtful that turning the outdoor facility into a concert venue will generate the amount of net revenues envisioned by many.

Many popular acts require guaranteed appearance fees, and the cost of insuring a rain date cancellation is extremely high. And riders to the contracts, including accommodations, promoter’s fees and other amenities required by performers, leaves little revenue for the park, even if the event sells out.

Reviewing the operating expense numbers for RIFP compiled by Shultz and Williams, it appears that if the state completely cuts funding to the park, both governing boards would burn through their cash reserves in five or so years, even if they enhanced revenues with events such as onsite weddings and concerts.

The loss of the cash reserves would also mean an end to a permanent endowment fund reaching a level that could, one day, replace the state funding at its current level.

One option would be to privatize the amphitheater.

Even those critical of the park’s past operations cringed at the prospect of a “Budweiser Theater” operating in downtown Manteo with no public-sector control over the venue.

RIFP thought its had five years to transition its focus to more revenue-generating events.

The staff has stepped up promotions to host weddings, Girl and Boy Scout events, more concerts such as the Bluegrass Festival and in June, the nationally acclaimed Straight No Chaser, a male a cappella group, will perform at the park.

Given the cost to build the facility, the wages and salaries generated from the park’s employees, and the total economic impact to the area, especially the Manteo waterfront, cutting off the park completely from state funds seems to be a rather Draconian move.

Like many other issues facing Dare County, civic, business, and elected officials across the region should raise the public level of discourse on RIFP, putting aside regional differences.

And while a case can be made that RIFP has not always been “all it can be,” the focus in the future should be on how best to preserve this important historical site while enhancing its revenue-generating pontential.

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May 31, 2013 7:38 pm

If you want your soul nurtured thats fine, just don’t ask the taxpayers to do it. Organize a group and get it funded. This is why our nation is in the trouble it is with taxes. Every group and community across the country has these “pet” projects and politicians who want to be re-elected are all to glad to offer funding. It is time for this to stop.
I want to thank the Gov. for doing the right thing.


May 30, 2013 5:54 am

There are just some things which nurture the soul which simple accounting can destroy. The arts and an appreciation of our history are just two of these things. How many photographs of children and grandchildren learning that history can and is alive at Festival Park are treasures in local and long distance households?
A few years ago I had the honor to actually sail alongside the Elizabeth II. She, her captain and volunteer crew brought history alive as she sailed into Edenton Bay.

Can the Park generate more income? Do you think that the management isn’t trying? But to simply cut the Park off at the knees is a disservice and punitive action which saddens me. I would think better of our elected officials in Raleigh that they could do better.


May 29, 2013 8:42 am

I agree with Ray Mr. Wooten – the website could use a lot more information, and a blog would be especially useful to keep the public updated.

A Facebook page, and other links could go a long way towards getting your message out.


May 29, 2013 8:15 am

Mr. Wooten, you ought to post the plan you presented in Raleigh on your website, and also list your board of directors.

I also saw this article this week about Girl Scouts closing down their camps:


I would also note that the Girl Scouts already have two facilities in reasonable driving distance, at Washington and in Williamsburg, both of which are closer to larger urban populations than we are. Both facilities are close to 100 acres, far larger than RIFP.

I don’t understand how a summer camp would not infringe on the concert facility. Your drawing shows the cabins bordering the field. How does a concert festival coincide with a summer camp?

So I am not convinced that spending more money to build facilities that are considered redundant is going to help. How much is it going to cost to build your proposed facility, what is your projected revenue, what is the basis for that revenue figure, and where are you going to get the funding for construction?

James Wooten

May 28, 2013 10:08 pm

Thank you, our plan was received quite positively in Raleigh. However, we were told that no action will be considered until the General Assembly adopts the Governor’s draft budget. We anticipated this elimination in appropriations from the state, which provided part of the impetus for creating our own strategic plan for the site. We feel it is a beautiful site that tells an important story in our State’s history. We plan to continue to tell that story, while bringing about self-sufficiency through operational efficiencies and big additions to the programming offered. Hopefully our elected representatives and the Dept. of Cultural Resources will take action before the Historic Roanoke Island Fund is completely spent away to maintain park operations (5 or so years out given current revenues / expenditures).

Roanoke Island Festival Park simply spends far more money than it brings in. A major change in operations is needed to keep this Historic Site and the Elizabeth II afloat, without significant state money. Our organization has laid out a solid plan for maintaining self-sufficiency. Please feel free to visit our website and/or contact me directly for more information. Thank you!


May 28, 2013 7:23 pm

To obxfan, get a freaking grip! Let me give a good dose of reality! It was your beloved liberals that got into this position, and now that we are it takes common sense and guts to fix the problem rather than kick the can down the road which your party is famous for! We cannot keep with the handouts, shoot keep feeding bears they become dependent for handouts…..people or in the case something that needs to be privatized and stop taking taxpayer money! As far as Ocracoke goes, full time residents have paid their taxes and should ride free, others should pay.


May 28, 2013 6:21 pm

Mr. Wooten, if you want public support, your website is failing you. Put more information on there, please.
2nd request…


May 28, 2013 6:11 pm

Mr Wooten:

Thanks for your post! Hopefully your organization’s plan can offer a promising alternative future for the park.

How will the Governor’s complete and sudden elimination of all funding affect the five year plan you describe? Will it have any repercussions differing from the four-year phased draw-down? Does the sudden elimination hamper the chances of an organization such as yours for transitioning the park to an effective private-public joint venture?


May 28, 2013 4:19 pm

This is what Republicans are supposed to do – look at programs that are well meaning but a poor use of resources, and end them.

It should be very possible to make RIFP self-supporting – not easy perhaps, but doable.

Glad to have some reason to support Republicans – perhaps now they are in power, they can leave the religious stuff in church, and actually govern pragmatically!

James Wooten

May 28, 2013 12:41 pm

I represent an educational non-profit organization named Dare to Discover. This spring we submitted a 5 Year Strategic Plan and Proposal for Privatization for Roanoke Island Festival Park to a number of elected representatives and stakeholders in the North Carolina government. In this plan, we have outlined how we will operate Festival Park in a self-sufficient manner. This switch to a public-private model is highly successful throughout the nation, as state and local governments get out of the business of running attractions. Our plan, simply put, is to reduce operational costs through efficiencies and bring additional revenue to the Park by hosting school groups and camps in a residential setting. As this Voice article points out, the Pavilion amphitheater portion of the property is very underutilized. Our proposed site development plan, which repurposes these grounds without infringing on the performing arts space, can be seen on our website http://www.daretodiscover.org. Please email me at james.wooten@daretodiscover.org if you have any questions or would like to offer support. Thank you!


May 28, 2013 8:40 am

I applaud the Republican party for doing this mgmnt. You simply cannot have every community in the State doing multi million dollar do little programs that serve few. If it is that important to our community then raising the money will have to come from within our community.


May 28, 2013 8:31 am

Not a bad suggestion, Jon. But let me answer you with four words. “politics, money, business leaders”. This all equals “NO!”


May 27, 2013 9:00 pm

I’m good at asking stupid questions so here goes: why not sell Windmill Point and transfer the money to the RIFP endowment, and hold events like the Seafood Festival at RIFP? I know tourists are blissfully unaware of Roanoke Island, but we locals don’t have that excuse. RIFP’s amphitheater is also a much nicer concert venue than Windmill Point. And RIFP has plenty of parking!

Better to have one well-supported venue than two marginal ones . . .

Yes, RIFP could do a better job with some events, like their RennFest is nowhere near as big as those events typically are. That is probably because RIFP tries to present something fairly authentic which doesn’t appeal to the typical RennFester (I used to attend the MD fest as a leper, for example), but it would bring in more funds.

Still, $1M is an enormous sum of money. At $8/head, that’s 125,000 people, or about 1,200 more per day of the tourist season, or something like 5% of weekly visitors. That just isn’t going to happen quickly or easily.


May 27, 2013 4:31 pm

Perhaps the state GOP majority could force people to pay a higher toll to enter the park, the way they want to force Ocracokers to pay to get to and from their homes.

Remember, these policies are what most Dare County folks voted for when they voted Republican. Remember, nothing helps the OBX more than getting government out of our lives. Nothing makes the OBX stronger than policies that create economic hardship for ourselves.

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