Councilor requests audit of music festival

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Celebrate Belen’s Country and Americana Music Festival drew a disappointing turnout Saturday, and at least one city official is asking for a formal audit as to where the money was spent.

The Belen City Council established Celebrate Belen, a volunteer organization, earlier this year to coordinate and organize special events to promote economic development for the city.

Clara Garcia-News-Bulletin photo: The Squash Blossom Boys, a blue grass band out of Albuquerque, was one of 10 bands that performed at Celebrate Belen’s Country and Americana Music Festival on Saturday.

The volunteers of Celebrate Belen, which is trying to establish itself as a nonprofit, said while the city did provide some staff, such as police, fire and street department personnel, for the event, the festival was mostly paid for through private sponsorships.

When the News-Bulletin asked Steve Tomita, the city’s planning and economic development director and head of Celebrate Belen, and volunteer and coordinator Jan Johnson about the cost of the event, both said the final numbers had not yet been tallied.

During Monday’s city council meeting, Belen City Manager Mary Lucy Baca told the council she is working on how the city is “going to pay it off. We’re in the hole big time.”

Tomita told the councilors that the production company from “Transcendence,” that recently filmed in Belen, donated $15,000 for the music festival, which would offset some of the costs.

But one city councilor wants answers about exactly how much the city spent on Saturday’s event.

In a letter sent from Belen City Councilor Jerah Cordova to the city manager on Tuesday, he requests that the city consider a “special audit” of the use of public funds for the event.

Cordova wrote in the letter that in two meetings ― one public and one private ― “… it was disclosed that the music festival had low attendance, high costs, and as a result, substantial loss of funds. The breakdown between private and public expenditures had not yet been determined. Without having all of the figures yet calculated, discussions disclosed the potential loss of funds to be in the tens of thousands of dollars.”

In Cordova’s letter, he asks, in part, that a report be given to the council detailing the sources and amounts of the public funds used and a list of entities and individuals who received public funds. He also requested that the city provide legal reasons of why they used public money.

He is also requesting the money the production company donated not be used to reimburse the city for the loss of public funds for the festival.

“I would ask that any further action related to the loss of public funds immediately stop pending a full report from you that resolves the issue in this letter and any other questions or concerns from the city council and public,” the letter states.

After months of planning and preparing for the festival, the organizers walked away disappointed, hoping the next time will be different.

Johnson said they were expecting at least 1,000 people at the festival. She estimates that only 250 people attended the day-long event on Becker Avenue.

“We probably didn’t have the funds when it came to promotion,” said Johnson about the low turnout. “Some of the donations that had been pledged hadn’t come in until after the event. And by the time we got to the event, we had to cut back.”

Tomita said the low turnout was disappointing and echoed Johnson in that there was not enough advertising.

“We started out too big,” Tomita said. “We had fantastic music, great food, and the bands loved it. The people who did attend loved it. People came up to me and said ‘Please don’t stop … and don’t get discouraged.’

“Also, we were probably a little bit over enthusiastic and over priced,” he said of the $15 to $20 entry fee. “I think it was nice, even though the attendance wasn’t there.”

Both Tomita and Johnson said they don’t believe the reason why attendance was low at Saturday’s festival had anything to do with the fact that it was scheduled during the same weekend of Our Lady of Belen Fiestas.

Tomita said he believes more people didn’t attend because of other large events, such as the Special Olympics competition in Albuquerque and the Indian Market in Santa Fe.

“A lot of the audience we were trying to attract were from out of town,” Johnson said. “The price was probably more than local people are used to, but in other areas, such as Madrid, the prices are more comparable.”

Johnson explained that if the event had Spanish-type music, more locals would have attended, but they were trying to draw in “outside people” to bring economic revitalization to Belen. She said the organizers want to market the city and Valencia County as a destination area.

Tomita and Johnson said they will probably scale back on the next event, and are hopeful to promote it better. The next event will be a traditional Christmas event, “Pilgrimage to Bethlehem,” in early December. A film festival early next year also is in the works.

And while they didn’t achieve all their goals, such as raising significant funds for local veterans groups, Johnson said they were able to draw participation from state and national veteran organizations.

Celebrate Belen is comprised of organizations such as the Greater Belen Chamber of Commerce, Belen MainStreet Partnership, the city of Belen, Valencia County Hispano Chamber of Commerce and other Valencia County businesses and community groups.


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.