Carefree thwarts Thunderbird Art and Wine Festival’s attempt to short town

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judi combsCAREFREE – With council members John Crane and Melissa Price absent, council got into a somewhat contentious exchange with Judi Combs (l), CEO of the Thunderbird Art and Wine Festival, on Tuesday evening over her permit applications that attempted to short the town 10 percent from the customary 25 percent in gate fees it has received for over 20 years, for upcoming shows in October, January and February.

Mayor David Schwan explained the $3 gate fee has traditionally been split with 50 percent going to Thunderbird, 25 percent to the Carefree/Cave Creek Chamber of Commerce and 25 percent to the town.

Combs proposed the town take a reduced cut, which she referred to as a “donation,” to 15 percent, while the chamber continues to receive 25 percent and Thunderbird receiving 60 percent.

Combs cited increased expenses and costs for advertising in publications such as the U.S. Airways in-flight magazine as a reason for the town to take a cut.

marty saltzmanWhen Councilman Marty Saltzman (r) asked why the chamber was still receiving 25 percent, Combs responded, “Because they’ve been our partner from the beginning.”

Saltzman asked if the new application still included street closures.

Schwan stated everything was the same, street closures and all, except instead of the town receiving 25 percent, it would only get 15 percent.

Councilman Mike Farrar asked Town Administrator Gary Neiss if the town had expenses associated with the festivals.

Neiss stated there were, including road use, restroom maintenance, increased use of electricity and other expenses the town incurs during the festivals.

Neiss said the town charges a per vendor permit fee of $45 per booth.

Saltzman asked how close the revenue was versus costs.

Farrar asked if the town was breaking even.

Neiss, noting he’d not done an analysis, said, “I’d say we’re at a loss.”

“At 25 percent?” asked Saltzman.

Neiss responded, “Yes.”

Vice Mayor Les Peterson said, “No doubt the chamber has been a valuable partner, but so has the town … You call it a donation. It appears to be a fee.”

Councilman Glenn Miller held up the application and stated, “It’s in the contract.”

Combs said she didn’t have earlier records immediately available, without digging through paper, and stated, “Since 2002, we’ve paid $176,000 to the town.”

When questioned about head counts, Combs said a letter is sent to the town each year breaking the gate fees down.

However, Neiss said there always had been, except this past year there was an issue with the payments and no letter detailing head counts.

Farrar said he agreed with Peterson, stating, “I too feel the town has been a partner but we’re supposed to take the only hit.”

Pointing out the chamber also receives 25 percent of the wine sales, he asked, “Have you explored raising the entry fee by $1?”

Combs stated she didn’t think the economy could support a $1 increase in the gate fee.

Schwan asked Combs how much she charges artists for each show.

She said booths cost $420 (and up) plus a $35 “jury fee.”

According to Neiss, the town charges each artist a $45 fee on top of what Thunderbird charges.

Combs stated the town’s fee is very high compared to other municipalities and said she lost an artist because the fee is so high.

She then read what the fees were in several other municipalities.

Combs said another artist downsized her booth because the fee was so high.

Farrar said he didn’t know if he agreed with her and asked what the head count was of attendees.

Combs said she didn’t have the figures with her but the only way they know is by the gate fee, pointing out Carefree residents don’t pay and some people who have spent large amounts of money have free passes.

Saltzman asked if anyone was keeping records of the trends in attendance.

Combs said the gate fee was the only way they had of tracking but said they don’t pay any other towns where they do shows, stating, “We’re invited.”

She claimed traffic was down.

Peterson asked if sales taxes were charged.

Combs said that was something the artists do and said, “We encourage our artists to pay their sales tax.”

However, she said they do have a lot of patrons who purchase at the show and have the items shipped out of state.

Farrar stated the Thunderbird Art and Wine Festival seemed to be a very popular event and suggested raising the entry fee or looking into other means of trimming expenses.

He said, “It’s kind of unfair for the town to shoulder all the burden.”

Peterson said the events were a “positive” for the town but not for some of its merchants because it blocks off access.

Farrar said, “If you sharpen your pencil, maybe you can think of other ways to reduce expenses without burdening the town.”

Combs said, “If you think the town should continue to get 25 percent, we’re not willing to walk away.”

During public comment, Lyn Hitchon stated, “I’m in complete agreement with Councilman Farrar. One dollar is not a big difference to [attendees],” noting it is a fine art show with high-end art.

She asked, “What’s $4, a cocktail?”

Miller moved to approve the applications with the town’s cut changed back to 25 percent.

The motion carried by a vote of 4-1 with Saltzman dissenting.

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