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City of Rochester, Communication Bureau

The Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival is one of the best Upstate success stories of the past decade. Last year’s 10th annual festival drew a record 182,000 people to downtown Rochester. The festival brings people of all ages and races together for a big 9-day party. It’s a wonderful thing for our city.

Festival organizers are holding a news conference Tuesday to detail what will be new this year. The footprint will be expanded onto a portion of Main Street, an acknowledgement Gibbs St. was getting way too crowded. We’ll also hear about the economic impact, an estimated $110 million since 2002. This year, businesses are organizing entire conferences around the Jazz Fest.

One measure of the festival’s success we will not hear about is how much money it’s making. RIJF LLC is a privately-held company. Revenue for music festivals comes from ticket sales, sponsorships and vendor sales. A spokeswoman wouldn’t say if the festival is profitable.

Before you say what RIJF LLC earns is none of our business, consider the fact the festival gets a lot of taxpayer dollars. At one point, the level of city support was $225,000. This year, it’s $175,000.

The festival doesn’t have to open its books to get that cash. Councilman Adam McFadden thinks that’s wrong, as some entities are required to hand over certain financial information in return for government support.

“It’s a great festival…I just thought when we’re giving them that much money, it makes sense,” McFadden said. “I don’t want us to be foolish in our due diligence.”

The $175,000 pays only for the cost of the free shows, including artists, stage, sound and lighting.

“We’ve reduced their money every year,” said Councilwoman Elaine Spaull, chair of council’s new arts committee. She said the payment could be scrutinized in the future. “One of things we’ve focused on is all the free stuff that they do. It’s very specifically for all of the free events.”

The city calls the $175,000 a sponsorship and monitors how the money is spent. It’s not concerned with how much money the promoters are making or whether they actually need the cash. As far as City Hall is concerned, the $175,000 is an investment with an enormous return in promotion for the city and tourism.

“Frankly we hope that the organizers make a lot of money as it will ensure the growth and resilience of the festival,” said spokesman Gary Walker in an email. He said the city’s support early on helped the festival explode.

If the city pulled the dollars, the festival could threaten to cancel the free shows and we’d all be really upset. The organizers do make money from the free shows from vendor sales. They could also try to get private sponsors to replace the city. But the Jazz Fest may now wield the same kind of power as a company promising to bring jobs in exchange for tax breaks.

When a festival has multiple sponsorships and sellout crowds, it’s worth at least asking if that level of taxpayer support is still needed. It doesn’t look like we’ll ever know.

Update following Jazz press conference: A couple more financial details about the festival: The county contributes $75,000. The festival organization has donated at least $44,000 to local political candidates and parties.

The festival started a 501(c)3 to continue its annual jazz scholarships to local students. The festival was getting offers from people who wanted to donate to the festival itself, an indication many people think it’s a nonprofit. Now people can donate to the charity.

Marc Iacona, a festival founder, said the government support is necessary for the free shows and pays for about half the cost. He said without the support, the free shows wouldn’t take place. At this point in the festival’s history, the public has come to expect quality free shows and he would like to expand the offerings in the future. He would not say whether he’s making substantial money from the festival.

Mayor Tom Richards told me (half-jokingly?) I wasn’t going to “spoil a good thing” by asking questions about the finances. He fully supports the city’s investment and won’t ask the festival to open its books.

21 Responses to The Jazz Street Mystery

  1. At 8% sales tax on the $110,000,000 that the festival has earned the city has made $8,800,000 in sales tax alone. That doesn’t include corporate taxes on RIJF, nor does it include other revenue (Hotel tax, parking garage receipts, parking ticket receipts, etc.). Let’s say the city averaged a $200,000 investment each year since 2002. That is $2,000,000 invested to get $8,800,000 back. I’d say that a 4x return on investment would be a very reasonable return.

  2. March 19, 2012 at 11:15 pm Eduardo Ricardo responds:


  3. March 19, 2012 at 11:54 pm Dave McKinley responds:

    How much does it cost the city taxpayers for police overtime and cleanup/sanitation on top of the $175,000?

    It would seem to me there should be more transparency when it comes to the expense of the public’s money.

    As well, I would think the contributions made by the city in the early years as “seed money” have yielded a bountiful harvest. To the point where the festival should be standing on its own legs now.

    • March 20, 2012 at 7:47 am Rachel responds:

      I believe festival pays for police, but certainly there are additional costs.

      What disturbs me is any implication that because the festival is awesome, we shouldn’t question anything going on.

  4. I understand Councilman McFadden and others’ concerns, but really, so long as how the money being given is spent is accounted for and it is all for the free events, I don’t see why RIJF LLC should have any special obligation to show how much they are making. The free shows no doubt benefit the businesses near them, and do generate money for the city in parking fees and sales taxes as Mr.Drake points out.Though his math is a little sloppy, half that 8 percent goes to the state, his point is still valid.

  5. March 20, 2012 at 7:49 am Rachel responds:

    Christine, the festival makes money from the free shows.

    Let’s say the organizers are making $175,000 in fees for putting on free shows. Would you still be okay with the expense? It’s that kind of thing that is possible without transparency. (NOT saying that’s what’s going on here, but again – we don’t know.)

  6. March 20, 2012 at 9:56 am Jim Webster responds:

    Rachel, Why the hell are you making an issue when there isn’t one?
    This is an issue of city investment in itself. So what if the promoters make money. They’re supposed to.
    And you need to spend your time promoting the city rather than questioning this.

    • March 20, 2012 at 11:17 am Rachel responds:

      Some people think it’s an issue.

      Also, it is not my job to promote the city. It’s my job to hold the powerful accountable. The Jazz Fest is now powerful and warrants scrutiny. You have made a decision you don’t care. That’s fine. But you can’t make that decision without the information.

  7. If the product sucked and it was obvious the money was being thrown out the window then yes, question it. There isnt one hint of impropriety here. I say give them the midtown property, sign it over, they obviously know what they are doing.

  8. March 20, 2012 at 4:23 pm Eduardo Ricardo responds:

    Perhaps the point could be made that the City, or whoever, could hire top talent to appear rather than hire unknown, secret promoters who may not even live in the area (much like every other developer the City deals with/hires).

    With so much talk of local, it is anything but. We aren’t local. We aren’t united. We are as divided as ever. And within that, lies trust. And without trust, there is nothing.

    Can we trust the City to give taxpayers a good time without paying too much, or anything at all?

    THAT’s the big question.

  9. March 20, 2012 at 5:30 pm Eduardo Ricardo responds:

    Is parking free at Jazz Fest? Or should we assume that is isn’t and be insensitive to anyone else who can’t afford to go. Or park.

    Besides, the Jazz Fest is marketed toward the 40’s – 50’s type crowd who live a suburban life looking to yuppie it up.

  10. March 21, 2012 at 12:24 pm James Simons responds:

    I completely understand the need to scrutinize those in power, and the Jazz fest certainly qualifies at this point. It would be nice if they were slightly more open about their revenue. When it comes to the city’s funds, I do feel it is a worthwhile investment, even if the festival is healthy enough to make a profit.

    The festival itself caters to a more affluent crowd. Many of us in the area who are on the lower end of middle class or below cannot afford to attend these events. I would love to buy a club pass or see some of the headliners. But when tickets start at 50 dollars on the low end it prices me out. The free shows are a way for the festival and the city to connect and share music with all of its residents. That helps make the festival something all Rochesterians, even the poor ones like me, proud of.

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  12. If parking is the issue – take a bus. Parking for an event like this in surrounding lots is typically 6 bucks or something – not exactly a fortune. If you want to park free park on the street on a side street off east ave and walk a couple blocks. This is Rochester. In the summer. It’s a pleasant stroll.

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