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Credit: City of Rochester


Congratulations to the Xerox Rochester International for a 13th successful year. It’s a great event and it’s wonderful to see downtown alive with music and people. But that doesn’t mean the festival should get a pass from public scrutiny.

1. Does Jazz Fest still need public money?

The city gives the festival $175,000 to underwrite free shows. The city also provides $68,000 in police services and equipment rental. At last check, Monroe County gives the festival $75,000.

The festival also makes money from ticket sales, food and beer vendors and sponsorships.

We simply don’t know if Jazz Festival could be put on without these funds. Why? This is a for-profit event, meaning the promoters don’t have to open their books. We don’t get to see how much Marc Iacona and John Nugent are earning. We don’t get to see their revenue and expenses.

When I last asked this question, then-Mayor Tom Richards told me he didn’t care how much money the festival makes, because it’s a great event. Iacona and Nugent said they’re not getting rich. They also said the quality of the event would suffer if the public funds were removed or reduced.

Open the books and let the public judge those statements.

2. Is the Jazz Fest subsidy fair?

The Jazz Festival is not Rochester’s largest festival. The festival claims it attracted 196,000 people in 2014  – a laughable 1,000 more people than last year so they can say they broke a record.

Crowd estimation is not an exact science. But if you believe the numbers, Corn Hill attracts 200,000 to 250,000. Park Avenue attracts 200,000. Lilac attracts more than 500,000. I highly doubt these festivals gets the same per-person level of tax dollar support. All of these festivals are nonprofit events.

Smaller festivals also do not get the same level of per-person taxpayer support. East End Festival, which is for-profit, gets zero tax dollars. The nonprofit Fringe Fest, which attracted 50,000 people, only gets $20,000 from the city and has to pay for its own police coverage.

Meanwhile, this month City Council approved $45,000 for a three-day concert series at Martin Luther King Square that’s expected to draw only 6,000 maximum over the entire series. Police services will be free to the promoter. There are very legitimate questions about festival favoritism.

You may argue the Jazz Festival has a bigger return on investment than other festivals. That may or may not be true. No one has ever done a study comparing the festivals. The Visitors Association claims the Jazz Festival has a $12 million impact, but I’d like to see a breakdown. Even if Jazz has a huge economic impact, we still don’t know how much of that cash goes directly to the for-profit festival. More importantly, is return on investment the criteria for festival support? Shouldn’t that be a public conversation?

3. Who gets free tickets? 

I’ve filed a Freedom of Information request with the city and county to find out if they got any free tickets as part of their sponsorship arrangement. If so, it’s important to find out who got these tickets. That would lead to the question of whether public officials are influenced to support the festival by this perk.

4. Why aren’t state liquor laws followed during the Jazz Festival?

During the Jazz Festival, open containers are all over the East End, even past the barriers set up. People are allowed to leave bars with their drinks, which I’m pretty sure is against the law. Police officers admitted to me they look the other way during Jazz Festival. I’ve asked the State Liquor Authority for all information regarding festival permits and the coverage area for open containers.

During other festivals, bars, restaurants and festival organizers have to follow strict rules. Try walking down Park Avenue with a beer can of during this year’s festival and see what happens. Why aren’t rules followed during Jazz?

5. Why is the Jazz Festival allowed to overcrowd Gibbs Street?

“Jazz Street” is one big party during the festival. But it’s not a safe party. People with wheelchairs and strollers struggled to get down the street. Some needed police escorts. Police officers have told me they’re very worried anytime someone needs help in that crowd.

Also, the layout of the Chestnut Stage lends itself to big-time overcrowding. Beer sales are a barrier to the south. There’s a barrier erected to the west. The Jazz Street stage is a natural barrier to the east, as the sound from the two stages compete.

In summary, it’s way past time for Jazz Festival to face the music. I’m not sure other media will ask these questions, as the festival is sponsored by 13WHAM (which was not happy I asked these questions in 2012), the Democrat and Chronicle and WXXI.

I’ll keep you posted on what I find out.


Links of the Day:


– Check out the latest list of Rochester’s largest employers. Kodak is #13.

– This is horrific. Refugees are being terrorized in Rochester.

– Wegmans flexible packaging for sunscreen causes concern.

– Cut score madness on the New York Common Core exams. You only needed to get 30 out of 84 points to pass one of the tests.

– Syracuse newspaper questions the Bills’ need for a new stadium.

Great Lakes water levels are way up.

– What’s next or Internet TV now that Aereo has been defeated?

Free parking is bad for everyone.

The food aboard Air Force One.


Tweets of the day:



22 Responses to 5 Questions About Jazz Festival

  1. Each and every question you ask is legitimate. If we’re going to bemoan how the state and area IDAs “pick winners” when it comes to tax breaks for businesses, then the arts and entertainment field has to be held to a similar standard, and calling it a quality of life issue doesn’t cut it as an excuse.

  2. June 29, 2014 at 1:27 pm Gene Clifford responds:

    Rachel-I believe you’re being overly critical here. I believe that the City and County subsidies are to underwrite the costs of the free shows which are put on during the festival, both on Gibbs Street and the various stages such as East and Chestnut. The festival is a wonderful event for Rochester–probably the best thing that’s happened to Rochester in the last 20 years. Do John Nugent and Mark Iacona make money on it? I sure hope so because they work at it around the year, pull off a very successful festival every year and do it with aplomb. Sure, Mark has a day job but for John this is his year-round gig and he is fantastic at what he does and works harder than anyone I know in making sure everything goes off smoothly. If you want to uncover some graft somewhere, please look into the billions of dollars which the Federal government gives to Walmart, Halliburton and big oil and leave our highly successful, highly enjoyable Jazz Festival alone.

    • June 29, 2014 at 2:02 pm Rachel Barnhart responds:

      The festival still makes money on those free shows, which inflate festival attendance. I don’t disagree it’s wonderful. I just want to know if the large subsidy is justified. Of course, they’ll threaten to take away free shows or reduce the quality of the acts. But we simply don’t know what’s true without seeing the numbers.

  3. June 29, 2014 at 2:17 pm Biker Bob responds:

    All good questions. Anytime tax payer money goes to a for profit group the books should be open.

    • June 30, 2014 at 6:20 am Rachel Barnhart responds:

      They claim it’s because EE blocks off the area and charges admission. However, there had to be workarounds that would have solved that problem for neighbors. I think that issue provided them cover to kill it.

  4. June 29, 2014 at 11:20 pm Andrew Zibuck responds:

    I’m missing something here, since I usually agree with just about anything you say.

    1. Who cares? If the city *wants* to underwrite free shows, well, that’s great. I don’t know if they need to or not, but they do, and thank you.

    2. Fair? Well, what does Corn Hill or Park Ave provide for free? Some of the acts that perform free shows at the Jazz Fest also perform paying gigs. What several thousand, or tens of thousand dollar things are the other stale, old, Rochester festivals providing?

    3. Really? That’s a question/issue?

    4. and 5. Legit concerns in a letter-of-the-law way. But for too long RPD looked the other way at Park Ave revelers. I think they do a pretty good job at Jazz fest. Since beer is sold on the street so what if people leave bars with a drink? What is the actual difference?

    As soon as the still-overcrowded and overserved Park Ave fest is addressed, I’ll bother worrying about the nitpicks here.

    • June 30, 2014 at 6:19 am Rachel Barnhart responds:

      1. The festival makes money on the free shows, which are now an ingrained part of the festival. The city only directed the money to the free shows after complaints on council. It used to all be part of the same pot, but this was done to make it look good.

      2. Those festivals are nonprofit. They are not turning money the city provides them into for-profit enterprise.

      3. Yes. I paid $100 to see Earth Wind & Fire. I’d really like to know if officials who provide money to the festival through their votes and support got to go for free.

      4. I don’t think open container and leave & carry is a big deal. But I mention this because it’s a question of fairness.

    • good points

  5. I’m sorry, but there are bigger ‘subsidies’ to worry about in Rochester, like the enormous ones the City of Rochester gives to the suburbs by supporting the region’s only cultural assets (all of its museums, big theaters, etc.) only to have suburban residents gripe about the City being a drain on County resources (a claim that couldn’t be farther from the truth.) The Jazz Fest isn’t some shadowy, corrupt multi-billion dollar enterprise — it’s a healthy locus of economic activity for the City.

  6. Rachel, one reason the Jazz Fest is so good for the area is that it brings in people from around the country. Corn Hill and Park Ave are basically arts and crafts shows where locals go to browse and buy. I doubt you’ll find many people who travel hundreds of miles to buy kettle corn or sample Uncle Joe’s Secret Mustard or buy that cute kitty refrigerator magnet.
    Jazz Fest draws in people from across the country who spend many days here spending money – money from somewhere else – money that isn’t going from one local pocket to another.
    Lilac Festival does draw in others from far away, but Highland Park doesn’t provide new types of lilacs each day, so people come here as a day trip and move on.
    Look at the cities that have Jazz Festivals – New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, Toronto, San Diego etc etc. These are places that draw people in and music draws in young people. If we want to keep this area vibrant and growing we need to make it a place that appeals to young people.
    I can’t tell you how many people I ran into at Jazz Fest who thought it was great and how many said “This what downtown should always be like”.
    As someone who is always promoting downtown Rochester and city living, I am truly surprised to hear you being negative about it.
    Often people will say they won’t come downtown because of fear. Jazz Fest lets them see first hand that it really is pretty safe. I saw people walking all over downtown without concern, not just in the festival area.
    As someone who thinks that the police should be less strict when it comes to parking tickets at Park Ave Festival, I am surprised you object to police being lenient at Jazz Fest.
    Park Ave has shuttles if people want to use them, and I believe those are underwritten by a municipal agency.
    Should the city and county spend some money to try to help the economy and make downtown more vibrant?

    • July 1, 2014 at 7:03 am Rachel Barnhart responds:

      No is saying the Jazz Fest isn’t those things. No one is saying the Jazz Fest should go away. I AM questioning if the Jazz Fest needs our money.

      • I think JazzFest could exist without our money, just as much as Park Ave Fest and Corn Hill and Lilac could.
        Many events and organizations could exist without public funding, but they would need to operate on a smaller scale.
        JazzFest is gaining a national and international reputation.
        Having bike paths and parks for people are great ideas, but the money for these has to come from somewhere.
        If Rochester isn’t viewed as a destination city, then our residents will go elsewhere to spend their dollars. That will leave less dollars for our economy and likely less people since many young people will move to cities that have big events and are not merely local gatherings.
        Many young people are moving out now because “There’s nothing in Rochester”.
        Is that a trend we want to perpetuate?
        I think adding public money to grow the economy (and thus the future of the area) is a good thing. It will help ensure a tax base to fund other things.

  7. June 30, 2014 at 10:41 pm Orielly responds:

    Let us not forget that the city is broke and runs at a deficit of over 20M. They’ve said this multiple times. Because of this they raised taxes, and parking rates in city garages, and have made other threats to raise revenue.

    So does a festival that makes lots of profits for its promoters also deserve to continue to receive funding from the “broke” city? If this festival is so great, shouldn’t it or any festival stand on its own?

    It does seem rather odd, and a true sign of favoritism, that the EAST End fest had to be cut from three to one night a year, we were told, because of too much loud music and drinking. But the jazz fest can run two weeks in the same area with loud music and lots of public drinking.

    One group is cool to the power brokers the other group is an apparent nuisance.

    • O’Reilly, as I mentioned above, the JazzFest brings in money from OUTSIDE our area, adding to our economy. Many of the local festivals just cater to residents (which is not a bad thing) but doesn’t add dollars to the area, the dollars are merely redistributed.

      I would rather grow the economy rather than just massage it.

  8. July 1, 2014 at 8:24 am jeffrey rhodes responds:

    Why arent the thursday party in the parks free? like the free east ave concerts? Why not put the money there in something that has the citys name on it?

  9. July 9, 2014 at 11:49 am Jill Castle responds:

    Rachel-I think the City of Rochester should do anything it can to help the horrible reputation it has! They should be thanking John Nugent and Mark Iaconne each and every day for making Rochester the place to be for those 9 fabulous days. For those 9 days people are actually walking around the city – spending money and generating a positive feeling about Rochester. Not staying away from the city due to the incredible fear a lot of people have about downtown! Have you tried walking down Main Street on any other night of the year at midnight??!!! Not the friendly place to be. As for your other points- didn’t your mother tell you- life is not fair! Corn Hill, Park Ave and the East End festivals are not the same caliper or even the same type of festival. When they can generate the same revenue, help the city repair its horrible image then perhaps they can have a bigger slice of the pie. As for the alcohol- if you have not noticed- during the nine days for 13 years- I would expect the incidents related to over indulgence to be extremely low-if any incidents at all. It is a nice touch to be able to grab a glass of wine and walk around to see different music. Count the number of alcohol related issues at the East End fest in one night… as for Park Ave & Corn Hill- those are actual neighborhoods- a little different than a downtown music festival. My last point- I saw a very large number of wheelchairs, hoverounds, strollers, people walking with canes, and no one seemed to have any issues getting around- in fact people were more than accommodating- helping open doors, moving out of the way. Half of the fun hanging out on Gibbs street is seeing all the different types of people who because it is free take advantage of making a night of it. If the free events are not part of the festival- that is only hurting the people that cannot afford to be a part of something so wonderful.

    • Well said, Jill.
      People shouldn’t have the `glass is half empty’ attitude. I the adage “bad news sells newspapers” still exists and relates to blogs, too.

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