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Another Year Older, Deeper In Debt Festival At Sandpoint Organizers Plan Leaner Budget After Dismal 1996

A summer of rain, some little-known performers and dismal ticket sales have left the Festival at Sandpoint mired in debt again this year to the tune of about $125,000.

It’s a blow to the popular outdoor concert series that struggled out of a $100,000 debt last year, and survived two lawsuits and the resignation of its executive director and key employees.

“The fact is, there is no way to put a positive spin on this,” said festival President Dave Slaughter before the organization’s annual meeting Thursday night. “The big hit for us was ticket sales. We did a horrible job of marketing and it killed us.”

One of the employees who quit over disagreements with the festival board last year was marketing director Cheryl Brock. Organizers never hired anyone to take her place and felt the sting of poorly planned publicity for its concerts.

The festival expected to rake in $361,000 in ticket sales, but fell a whopping $222,000 short of that goal.

“We were missing marketing expertise and didn’t realize how bad we needed it until it was too late,” Slaughter said.

Four consecutive years of being in debt has taken a toll on festival organizers. Seven of the board’s 20 members chose not to stay for the next season and new ones were elected. The remaining veteran members are “beat up” and frustrated, Slaughter said, adding the festival cannot go on year after year plagued by debt.

“This is it,” he said. “We can’t do it anymore, and we are frustrated by the situation we are in. We are determined with a new budget that this is not going to happen again.”

The board has opted for a leaner budget, will hire a marketing director, book well-known acts and pare back concerts from 11 main-stage shows to six or eight.

Despite the grim season, which happened to be the fifth-rainiest in 103 years, organizers say they have not lost faith in the festival’s ability to survive. They are convinced this is not the death knell for the concert series.

“This is not the best position to be in, but the festival will continue - absolutely,” said Executive Director Ron Wasson. “We are going to work through this to keep the festival alive.”

The festival has already started fund-raising efforts aimed at paying off creditors owed money from last season, including $26,000 owed to festival artistic director Gunther Schuller. Slaughter said the overall debt was more than $200,000 in September and has been reduced to $125,000.

The board is considering borrowing money to get back on track and have a conservative budget of $533,000. That compares to last year’s $741,000 spending plan.

Schuller has not yet committed to returning to the festival.

Slaughter said Schuller hasn’t been formally asked and won’t be until organizers have a plan for paying him.

“How many times can we ask him to take that leap of faith in us before he says this isn’t fun anymore? I’m sure when it takes this long to get paid he (Schuller) would find that a bit irritating after a while,” Slaughter said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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