Trouble brewing for the Sidmouth folk festival - extracts from an article in the Sidmouth Herald of 17 August 2001.

It has been clear for years that the festival would run into difficulties. Costs rise remorselessly, accommodation for artists becomes more expensive (or simply not available), few businesses in the town give any support and many local people either dislike the festival or expect something for nothing just because they live in Sidmouth. Steve Heap cannot fairly be accused of not giving the town ample warning of what could happen if more support was not found - yet in 2004 some people are doing just that! His many warnings should have been heeded. Now, in 2004, it may be too late.

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A blockbuster it was not says festival director.

While pubs, cafes and other town traders reaped the rewards of this year's International Festival last week, its director Steve heap has warned the town -"the future of the festival is in your hands" - after he predicted the event itself had made a loss.

With foot and mouth hitting the number of advance booked season tickets this year, leaving spaces in the Knowle campsite, Mr Heap pointed out 'The only people making a profit are the businesses in the town". He said although this year's festival had not been a disaster it had not been a block busting year.

He continued: 'There have been some excellent shows in the arena and some of the best performances have been at the Volunteer Inn and Bedford Hotel where people have the opportunity to perform on an open stage. "What has hit us most was on the opening Saturday, our biggest day, we had bad weather which did destroy one of our best days with takings down 80 per cent"

But many traders and businesses have profited well from the festival - up to 5 million in Devon was a figure heard by Mr Heap - but only a handful give any financial support back to the festival.

There are hundreds of businesses in the town but we have only 12 patrons from the whole of the town. "We get support from some people in Sidmouth but it is a tiny minority and it has always been that way. I have been desperately trying to convince businesses in Sidmouth that they should support the event I don't know what we have to do but I'm trying."

He said he needed to know now, not in the autumn, if he had financial support for the future of the festival, which he felt should stay in Sidmouth, although very few people appeared prepared to make sure it stays. He said: "Its future is in the hands of Sidmouth, I think it will go on forever but we might not run it. We can't keep affording to make a loss."

The festival costs around 6-700,000 to stage and 50,000 is spent on advertising the event which brings in thousands of people into the area for the biggest such event in Europe.

What disturbs Mr Heap is that while he is paying for acts to perform, hiring of marquees, equipment and the like, others are cashing in on the event, particularly those performing down on the Esplanade or selling bird whistles and braiding hair by the seafront.

"If I did it I wouldn't be allowed. I'm not allowed to put signs up without a licence," he said. John Vallender, chief executive of East Devon District Council, told the Herald that there was no question of a blind eye being turned to these traders and licensing officers had chased a number of people off, although some returned later. He said those offering a service such as hair braiding, were not coveted by street trading legislation and the council had supported a Cornish council in its efforts to get the Home Office to amend it.

Pledging the council's support of the festival, Mr Vallender continued: "The festival brings a lot of trade into the town and Sidmouth a lot of publicity that would be difficult to buy. He (Mr Heap) feels bitter that local traders are not prepared to contribute in any way towards the festival."

Another criticism of the festival was that there are fewer international artists. Mr Heap explained that part of the reason for this was the lack of places to put them up that were affordable. "We would like people to host them but no-one has ever come forward. We need 300 beds for eight days and would be delighted if people had a spare room. "All we want to do is run a successful event and want to do it in partnership in the town. We spend money on publicity, they take a lot of money and we get nothing. It is one way traffic."

Mr Vallender said since the demise of the Iron Curtain Russian groups who had come over as 'cultural exports' were now demanding generous expenses and wages and somewhere other than a mattress to sleep on. Traders in Sidmouth were this week confirming good takings for festival week, and many felt there were not as many people in the town as previous years.

John White who owns Cards and News, a patron in previous years, employed more staff to cope with extra customers who "bought a lot of everything". He feels the festival is good for the town. So does nearby Mark Chapman of Paragon Books. "It is always the busiest week of the season," he said. "We sold a cross-section of everything. This year was on a par with previous years although there were fractionally less people. "I look forward to the festival and enjoy it as much for the music as well as business." He said he was not a patron because he had not got round to signing up.

Mike Fielden, who has just completed his third festival as owner of the Olive Grove restaurant and delicatessen, said he would consider becoming a patron if approached. "It was very busy last week," he said. "It was a record week and it sees us through the darker parts of the winter. We need something like this. I wouldn't like to see them go bankrupt because it does Sidmouth a lot of good."

Tim Spores, joint managing director of Fields, reported a very successful week with its coffee shop doing almost too much trade. Friends of the festival through the patron scheme, Mr Spores said the festival is economically beneficial to the town as a whole. Hotels and pubs fared well too. The Marlborough was a music venue with performances from the Chris Stuckey band, Ian Briggs on mouth organ and guitarist Maurice Dickson being some of the artists booked for around 6,000. "I don't sponsor them because I pay for the music, although I did put up a group" he said.

Mrs Leone Pyne of the Bedford, where Lonnie Donnegan and other artists stayed, said the hotel had been very busy. "We do sponsor the festival and we think it is a good thing for the town. Sidmouth holds the largest folk festival in Europe and it brings a lot of business and revenue to the town."

Final word to Mr Heap: "We want to work with the people in the town, it is about partnership that is what the patron scheme is about. We have got to get through the good years and the bad years together"


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