Mount Dora Special Events Workshop Nets Much Discussion, No Changes

City Council Council Chambers were filled for the Special Events Workshop

The Mount Dora City Council workshop began with the Mayor’s opening comments, “No decisions will be made tonight.”

The city council invited various community event sponsors, supporters and organizers to participate in an educational session to inform the council about how special events impact the city and those organizations who run them.

Central to the overall discussion was the council’s concern about any public tax dollars that may be spent by the city to cover expenses incurred for holding special events in the city.  The meeting included input from many of the individuals who have a role in running events, as well as that of local business people impacted by the events.

Roy Hughes, Parks and Recreation Director
Roy Hughes, Parks and Recreation Director

After an introduction of the issues at hand from Parks and Recreation Director Roy Hughes, first up to address council was Christine Cole, who puts on the city’s annual Plant and Garden Fair.  She opened by expressing her disappointment that only an hour was being allocated by council for the discussion.  Cole explained that she was not paid in any way to put her event on, she is the “oldest” of the event organizers in town, and that there seemed to be a lot of “wrong thinking” going on relative to the events.  She cautioned the council that raising fees to the organizers of smaller events would kill them altogether.

Michell Middleton with the Mount Dora Center for the Arts was the next to approach the podium.  Middleton related that the Center for the Arts is much more than just a two-day festival.  The $140,000+ that the Center for the Arts makes from their juried, fine arts show supports the Center, exhibits within the gallery, art strolls, makes it possible for them to provide art camp during the summer for over 250 children (including 26 children on scholarships) and allows them to operate a program called Art Creates Change, free of charge to the children in the Northeast Community of Mount Dora.  Middleton talked about the economic stimulus and springboard that the Center for the Arts provided and talked about other cities’ enthusiasm for supporting fine arts festivals saying, “Winter Park actually gives money” to support their festival.  Though she said she understood that the City could no longer do that, she implored the council not to increase fees to the Mount Dora Arts Festival, as it would have an unfavorable impact on the Center, saying, “It’s hard enough for us to keep the Center open.”

Don Stuart, President of Visit Mount Dora, answers questions for city council
Don Stuart, President of Visit Mount Dora, answers questions for city council

Don Stuart, president of Visit Mount Dora (VMD) which operates numerous events in the community building, the Mount Dora Craft Fair, the Seafood Festival, the Blueberry Festival and the Spring Collectibles Show and the Farmer’s Market (among other activities and events) was the next to address council.  He discussed the events as, “The economic lifeblood of the city.”  Stuart said one of the side effects of coordination festivals and events was that finally every major group in the city – from the Center for the Arts to the Chamber of Commerce to the Community Trust were working together and partnering.  That, he said is an “invaluable asset” to the city.

Stuart explained that VMD paid the city over $120,000 to operate their events last year and paid over $200,000 to advertise and promote Mount Dora.  He explained that his organization was a form of business development providing an enormous amount of benefit to the city.  He echoed Michell Middleton from the Center for the Arts, explaining that his fees relative to expenses to put on events was also rising.  If fees were raised, he said, “The only place I have to take it from is advertising.”

Council member Rowlett explained that he had pulled the IRS forms on VMD and felt that there was too much money going to stakeholders in the organization.  He said he wanted taxpayers compensated for “every penny” of money that events cost the city.  “I see it, I have the facts, I have tax returns,” said Rowlett.  The mayor cautioned the council member, as his probing continued that “we don’t want this to be confrontational.”  Stuart acknowledged they paid salaries to staff to operate events, and he welcomed Mr. Rowlett to meet with him and the VMD’s accountant to discuss the way they operated.

Council member Slaby wanted to know if the event organizers could cut expenses by cutting city services in some way, if they could, “get by with less.”  Stuart responded that as an event organizer he “is not in a position to figure out what we need (regarding public safety presence).  I leave that to the city departments.”  He said his organization pays the bills as they are provided – and even pay in advance in the case of Mount Dora Community Building events.

Council member Tillett explained she felt the council was trying to address the “balancing act” between the benefit of special events vs. their cost to the city.  She noted that close to $130,000 in administrative costs for employees’ uniforms and other items were not being allocated to the events.

Mayor Girone responded that in New Jersey, where he worked previously, they also never put their administrative costs into rental fees and that administrative overhead was never charged.

Finance Director, Mike Sheppard reminded the council that, “The city has taken it upon itself to be a special event city.”

After questions by council member Rolfson, Director Roy Hughes explained that there was a $24,000 “gap” between fees charged by the city and the total absorption of all direct costs for special events to the city’s budget.  Council member Slaby said that one way to address any shortfall was not to pay employees overtime for working events, similar to his experience when he worked at Disney.

Council member Crail said he was seeing that the issue of special events is a very complex one and that he thought that the more good discussions and information gleaned from events partners, and the city staff the better the chance was that council would make the right choice on fees to event organizers.  He said he didn’t want to “do anything in haste that would tip the balance in a way we wouldn’t want to happen” relative to events.

Chamber of Commerce president Rob English was next to speak, saying he had waited until near the end to approach the podium because he sees his organization as a “servant” to all those who spoke.  He says he tries to be a peacemaker.

English spoke of the Chamber of Commerce as a hub that fields calls and visitors for every organization in the room.  He said the Chamber supports everyone, including the city.  He said that the Chamber has paid staff and handles phone calls and walk-ins who have questions about the city events – including the city’s own cornerstone events (such as Light Up Mount For and the Highland Games Festival).  English said he hoped that the council would remember that the combined organization before the council contributed in “huge”  ways to the city, and they support the city and its economy and do not charge the city for their services.

As the workshop had considerably overrun the planned time period, the mayor adjourned that meeting and reconvened to continue it under the regularly scheduled city council time.

After some brief discussion by council members, the mayor then added, “This is a public relations thing that we are doing.”  He spoke in support of the events and the number of people they brought to the city.  He spoke about neighbors in New Jersey (his previous home) who knew of Mount Dora’s reputation, attributed in large part to Renninger’s Twin Markets and the festivals and events in town.  Speaking of any budgetary shortfall, he said, “I chalk it up as advertising, public relations and the cost of doing business.”

Downtown business owner Debbie Belton said she appreciated the captive audiences that downtown events provided her business.  While acknowledging that every business does not directly benefit from every event, she said of her customers “90% are tourists.”  She said many of her locals customers simply do not come downtown during festivals.  She also acknowledged that there are pluses and minuses to having events in downtown but she felt strongly that most of her fellow merchants appreciate the events and understand that even if the events do not generate business the day of the festival or event, those tourists are likely to return to town.

Jim Gunderson, owner of the Lakeside Inn
Jim Gunderson, owner of the Lakeside Inn

Jim Gunderson, owner of the Lakeside Inn for the past five years and member of Lake County’s Tourism Development board talked about the benefits of festivals and events to the town.  He acknowledged that people are paid to do the work necessary to put the events on and that that should be expected.  He said he felt Mount Dora was “very lucky to have these organizations.” He also said he did not understand why the city council would not want to “try to help them do their good work.”  Gunderson said he was concerned that Mount Dora is falling short in not actively working to expand upon the tourism opportunities it has.  He felt that instead of looking to charge the event organizers extra money, they should look at the overall picture and work to ensure Mount Dora is a leader in Lake County tourism.  He asked council to “quit being so suspicious” of VMD, saying the people who run the organization have proven themselves.  “They live and work here,” said Gunderson.  “The value they provide to the community is immense.”  He also cautioned that the advertising and promotion they do for the city  is complex and important and “is not for amateurs.”

Gunderson asked council to look to the bigger picture and cautioned council that they needed to help Mount Dora grow as a community, and to be more serious about that.  “We are Mount Dora because of tourism,” he said.  Gunderson cautioned that other communities are moving forward and gaining on Mount Dora’s hold on events and tourism.

Council member Tillett said that the council intends to focus on economic development in the future.

Janet Gamache from VMD said it was necessary to pay people to put on events effectively.  She was concerned that raising event fees would disproportionately affect small events like the Plant and Garden Fair.

Council recessed the meeting 1-1/2 hours after it was called to order. As promised, no decisions were made about the fate of special events or the fees that are charged to hold them.

Melissa DeMarco, Editor (editor@mountdoracitizen.com)