Putting the Creative back in the Creative City’s events

April 8, 2014

By Ryan Gierach, West Hollywood, California

Set back on their heels by the recent news that three of the city’s events are troubled to the point of shut-down, the West Hollywood city council rebounded last night to make changes to the Sunset Strip Farmers’ Market, the Sunset Strip Music Festival and the Annual Book Fair.

West Hollywood's Book Fair will return as a down-sized literary event.

West Hollywood’s Book Fair will return as a down-sized literary event.

A report by city staff in February stated attendance at last year’s Book Fair fell by a third while spending increased by 38 percent to $150,000. Once attracting 15,000 people not long after its 2002 start, the number attending last year had fallen to one third of that – only 5,000.

The events firm hired by the city to produce the event in the wake of the Roz Helfand no-bid contract affair, Authentic Agency, a West Hollywood-based event producer owned by Liam Lynch, came under harsh attack from John Heilman, who founded the Book Fair and whose office has controlled it since the beginning.

Mr. Heilman, rather than see a down-sizing or any changes to the event, proposed that the city spend $125,000 this year to resurrect it. Few on the dais found the stomach to pour that much money into a failed venture without some degree of promised change.

The council did allow $30,000 for use on a “literary event,” although some of that money was set aside to develop ideas for a Book Fair 2015. The “celebration of literature” may feature one famous author reading, kids and family events and a film screening.

The Sunset Strip Farmers' Market in West Hollywood started strong but attendance fell in year two.

The Sunset Strip Farmers’ Market in West Hollywood started strong but attendance fell in year two. Photo courtesy Sunsetstrip.com.

Likewise, the Sunset Strip Farmers’ Market (SSFM) saw itself switched up to suit exigencies. Opened to acclaim in 2012, the SSFM saw a 17 percent decline in weekly attendance from year one to year two. A survey by the SSBA found that 90 percent of attendees live in the 90069 zip code area and more than a third attend the market two or more times a month.

The market lost a few dollars shy of $250,000 in 2012 and roughly $56,000 in 2013. The city contributed $50,000 last year to offset costs. In February, city staff suggested that the event be put on a hiatus until its problems could be ironed out.

The council, however, endorsed a plan to recast the SSMF, although some council members expressed deep reservations about the move.

The Sunset Strip Music Festival has been successful - too much so - and in need of professional management, WeHo's council says.

The Sunset Strip Music Festival has been successful – too much so – and in need of professional management, WeHo’s council says.

The big change will be dropping the “certified farmers market” label to also offering wine, beer, pre-cooked food and other products. In a  “certified farmers market,” at least 50 percent of the produce must be sold by the farmers who grow it, and staff believes that expanding the SSMF’s offerings will prove attractive.

The Sunset Strip Business District (SSBA), which operates the market, will contract with Calamigos Ranch, which operates the Main Street Farmers Market in Santa Monica on Sundays. to manage the SSFM this year.

In addition to those changes, the calendar will be shortened. It begins in May and will be one month shorter this year, ending in September.

Also, the market will open at 5:30 p.m. rather than 6 p.m. and close at 9:30 p.m. rather than 10 p.m.

Finally, the Sunset Strip Music Festival, an event fallen victim to its own success, received much attention. It, too, was placed on the possible hiatus list by staff in February.

The first-ever SSMF took place in June 2008 within six venues along Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. It was the first time all six famed Sunset Strip music venues came together to participate in one event, and it drew thousands of people and media outlets to The Strip. The Cat Club, House of Blues, Key Club, The Roxy Theatre, Viper Room and Whisky A Go-Go as well as The Standard Hotel and London West Hollywood hotel participated in the Festival

Its rising cost without a concomitant increase in revenues besets the most popular festival in town. According to a staff report on the matter, the festival has grown more rapidly than has the revenue it generates.

Photo by Chi Hong Wong.

Photo by Chi Hong Wong.

So far in four years, the city has contributed $540,000 to cover expenses related to police and fire services and erection of street barricades and has waived $46,400 in fees. The Sunset Strip Business Association (SSBA), which manages the independently incorporated festival, has paid $128,000 to sponsor it and loaned it an additional $360,000, a debt that it has forgiven.

That adds up to well over one million dollars for a few parties. Add to that, the businesses that make up the Sunset Strip Business Association are seriously in arrears on their payments to the non-profit that serves them with additional security, promotion and maintenance.

The city decided that a re-examination of the festival and the SSBA’s role was in order.

Last night the council approved SSBA’s request to enter into a partnership with a Nederlander Partnership to raise cash and share the responsibility and risks of operating the music festival for 2014. For the 2014 Festival, Nederlander will be responsible for the talent booking, marketing, operations, production, and ticket sales for the event

Nederlander will also share in the profits from the event with SSBA/SSMF and the City of West Hollywood

Additionally, the festival will be expanding the previous one day music street festival into a two day festival for 2014. The goal of the expansion is to generate room night stays for local hotels and increase the revenue generating opportunities for the festival.

City staff recommends that SSBA broaden the scope of the SSMF to include art exhibits, fashion events and film screenings.