Yesterday evening, Andrew Clock, the director of the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival, announced on Facebook that he’d been asked by his board to step down from the position which he’d held since January, 2012. As his tenure at the festival started with an interview on this site, I thought it only fitting that we’d speak again now, as he was exiting. What follows is our conversation.
MARK: So, I hear you got fired… What’s up with that?
ANDY: Yes, I was asked to step down as Director of the Heritage Festival, essentially because of my contentious relationship with City officials.
MARK: And this happened just a few weeks after you offered to quit?
ANDY: Yes. At our board meeting two weeks ago, I told the board that, given our finances, they needed to ask for my resignation. At the time it was refused.
MARK: You note that you had a contentious relationship with the City. How would you sum it up in a sentence?
ANDY: In one sentence, my issues with the City center around the really poor business practices I’ve witnessed as a promoter of events in Ypsilanti.
MARK: And this goes back to before you were with the Heritage Festival, right?
ANDY: Yes, this goes back to the Ypsitucky Jamboree and a few other experiences that I’ve had.
MARK: Going back to something that you said earlier…. You mentioned that you offered to resign for financial reasons. What did you mean by that?
ANDY: Well, this wasn’t a great year financially for the festival. We incurred larger than expected expenses, especially for security and City fees, and donations from individuals dropped off dramatically compared to last year. When I looked at the bottom line, I didn’t see the money there to continue to pay my stipend, and so I strongly recommended that the board ask me to resign my position.
MARK: And, just so I’m clear, how much of an annual salary are we talking about?
ANDY: My compensation started at $12,000 in 2012, and was $18,000 this year, as a 1099 contractor. For reference, previously there were two contractors in my position, both making $10,000 a year. While we paid for services, I was the only person involved in the Heritage Fest to draw a paycheck, and payroll made up around one-fifth of our annual budget, so it clearly wasn’t going to be sustainable anyway.
MARK: So you’re saying that, two weeks ago, you asked to be fired because, in your estimation, the Festival could no longer afford to pay a Director, given the financial situation?
ANDY: Essentially, yes. There were other reasons; some of my key volunteers, like Malissa Eckely and Jennifer Hackett, had already told me they were too burned out to go on, and the stress, and the hours of the job, have been less than healthy for me, and for my relationship with Hannah. On top of that, it really felt like there was a disconnect between the festival board and the volunteers putting on the festival. I’m pretty sure Malissa alone put in more hours during our three week production ramp-up than the entire board put in over a year, and it meant her having to take vacation time from work, and giving up income and family time. When you have that on one hand, and then, on the other, board members are saying things like, “Well, you never told me that you needed help cleaning up on Monday,” it gets pretty frustrating pretty fast.
MARK: So, you offered to leave for financial reasons, but you were ultimately let go for political ones?
ANDY: Pretty much. I do know that at least one board member voted against me yesterday based on economics, not my politics, but, for the rest, I think it was due to the things that I’ve said about City officials. Once a majority was reached, the rest of the board members were not asked their opinion on whether or not let me go. I spoke to five of the eight active board members, and four of them indicated that they had not been consulted. And three of these four suggest that they would have voted against this move, at least in this situation. The fourth didn’t think such an action could be taken without a full board vote, regardless of her decision. And the fifth voted against me, but for the budgetary reasons mentioned earlier, along with all three officers. Reading our bylaws, these actions are more or less legit, if not totally transparent.
MARK: How was the job presented to you when you first signed on?
ANDY: The job was presented to me as a part-time, seasonal position (20 hours a week) coordinating the festival. (I was not hired to lead the festival corporation, which is essentially what I’ve been doing.) The job, as it turns out, was much, much more involved than that. And, during the weeks surrounding the event, I often found myself putting in 20 hours in a single day. That makes it pretty tough to have a “real” job on the side, which was my intention going into this. And, as a result, it’s been pretty difficult for my girlfriend and me to get by much of the time. But I felt it was a worthy cause, and I certainly enjoyed the freedom and flexibility it provided. But it was also the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life.
MARK: When you say that the City employs “poor business practices,” what do you mean? Are you just saying that they were shortsighted in charging the festival too much to be sustainable, or is there more to it than that?
ANDY: In 2011, well before I was hired, I went before City Council and told them that what they proposed to charge the festival was far too much. The YHF leaders at the time had come out against Pete Murdock’s proposal to charge a percentage of total receipts for ticketed events. Even though YHF wasn’t going to be affected by this policy, the leadership came out to say it was bad business, and, the next thing you know, the new policy hit Heritage Festival harder than any, and fees have gone up every year since then.
MARK: So, let me see if I’ve got this straight… Four years ago, Pete suggested that the City take a cut of the door for every event held in the park. This wouldn’t have affected the Heritage Fest, as it’s a free event, but the Heritage Fest board came out against it… As I recall, the Beer Festival and others came out against it as well… And, as a result, the plan didn’t go forward. And, instead, fees were raised across the board for all events. Is that correct?
ANDY: More or less. The $1000 per day “capital improvements fee” was the result. And that fee, by the way, is applied per festival day. Reimbursements have also been raised by one-quarter to one-third. That’s the cost for things like police and fire personnel. There have been other costs added as well, like taking away free set-up days, and there are new charges for the use of equipment. The City maintains that these were fees they “should have been charging all along,” but never did. That’s baloney, though. If you didn’t charge a fee, and now you do, it’s a new fee.
MARK: How much did the Heritage Festival pay the City in 2014? And what was that as a percentage of your budget?
ANDY: To my knowledge, we haven’t yet gotten our bill for this year, but I expected it will be between $20,000 and $24,000. That makes up just about one-quarter of the annual budget. But there are other costs involved too, like the security we hire to manage crowds, something that Ypsi Police Department, for all the manpower they mandate that we have on hand, doesn’t do.
MARK: What do you mean when you say that “the new policy hit Heritage Festival harder than any”? Do you just mean because yours was a non-profit event, that didn’t sell tickets?
ANDY: The Heritage Festival is three days, so right there is an extra set of fees. Plus we’ve got fees associated with the parade (the Ypsi Fire Department loved to participate, but we had to pay for the Ypsi Police Department presence), like paying for the closure of Cross Street. It gets pretty expensive pretty fast. Then, last year, the City stripped the “value” out of all the park fees, adding fees for noise permits and for every possible piece of equipment we use. The way it works out now, you pay a fee to close the street, pay nearly full replacement cost for each sign, barricade, and traffic cone used, for the guy who comes out to put the signs up (if they show up – we often had to close the streets ourselves), pay to rent the truck he uses, the gas in the truck, and for the officers to enforce the closures. I’m all for paying for the worker and the officer (within reason, which is another discussion) but I think the City could find some room to cut a break on the pure fees. When it comes down to it, it would have been a drop in the bucket in the City budget. For us, though, it’s the difference between profit and lossl.
MARK: In addition to fees, were there other issues with the City?
ANDY: Yeah, there were plenty of other things. Calls and emails going unreturned for weeks, or even months. City employees cussing out Heritage Festival volunteers. Delays and foot dragging on important documents, such as our fee estimate. Dangling a City sponsorship in front of us and then refusing to even talk about it at Council. The first words ever spoken to me in an official capacity where, “You’re lucky we’re letting you have this festival at all.” That was said to me during my very first meeting with the City, in 2012.
MARK: As you pointed out on Facebook today, though, you’ve also had plenty of good experiences with City employees over the years, right?
ANDY: Yeah, I’ve said this again and again: I don’t want to paint a completely negative picture of my experiences with City government. There are some people doing some really great work, as evidenced by other projects I’ve worked on, like the Water Street Trail. But this good work is often overshadowed by decisions that don’t seem to support development.
MARK: Is it safe to say that you didn’t feel as though the festival was appreciated by the City?
ANDY: There is absolutely no appreciation for the economic opportunity events like the Heritage Fest can provide. No attempt to leverage the people we’ve gathered, turning them into return visitors, diners, or shoppers. We spent the money to market not just in Ypsi, and across Washtenaw County, but also in the metro Detroit region, but there’s no consideration given by the City for that help in marketing. We put all of our efforts into getting the people here. It should be the job of the City and the DDA to make sure everyone feels the impact of those visitors…
When it came to assigning fees, though, the City wanted to consider the Heritage Festival just another event. But clearly isn’t. The City arranged to have the commuter train at the festival, to promote the coming of the rail stop. I asked the City Manager, “If we’re just another festival, why didn’t you bring the commuter train to Beer Festival, Elvis Festival, or the Orphan Car Show?”
We tried to start a new 5k race on Saturday this year, for the specific reason that we wanted to get people into the downtown district, building on the audience that had already come out for the parade. We got back an $11,500 estimate for that event alone. That might be OK for the Color Run and their 15,000 runners, who pay $50 a pop, but we were hoping for more like 200 runners at $25 each. Lots of people downtown liked the idea, but we were priced right out of that one. Unfortunately, it took until the last days of June to tell us it would be that much, and, by that time, we had already spent substantial amounts on marketing materials, all of which had to be reprinted.
MARK: I don’t suppose it helped that you and Laura Bien have been engaged in a very public tussle these past few weeks.
ANDY: No, I’m sure it didn’t. That kind of thing was really frustrating, because she was really far off base and saying some pretty detrimental things that were absolutely untrue. It’s very frustrating when you try to show someone the information they claim you’re withholding, and they just keep yelling about how you won’t cooperate with them.
MARK: She was suggesting, if I understood her correctly, that you weren’t being forthcoming with the Festival financials.
ANDY: Yes. And it turned out, when I finally nailed down our treasurer on the issue, that the big increase in expenses that she was pointing to was because we sold more beer in one day in 2012 that they had the entire year before. Not that beer is the important part of the festival, but it’s one of the few places that a free event can make money outside of sponsorships and donations. Laura was looking at our tax returns only, which don’t give a very clear picture of where the money went. You need the budget to decode that part, and she ignored several offers to provide that information.
MARK: What was the straw that broke the camel’s back with your board? Do you think someone at the City talked with members of your board, telling them that, if they wanted to keep having the festival, they needed to find a new director?
ANDY: Who knows… There have been emails from City staffers to our board complaining that I had complained to my City Council reps about the jobs these staffers were doing, and I got reprimanded for that too. Pretty backwards when you think about it, but we’ve still got some pretty strong, small town “good ‘ol boy” politics that goes on around here sometimes. I don’t think I’m the only person who has experienced that, and I think it’s one of the biggest issues holding back development. Officially, I was told that a tweet I sent from Bowling Green, Ohio about what a great job that mid-sized college town does in promoting itself as a destination, and how Ypsilanti could learn a lot from their example, was the final straw, but there were plenty of other things. I also had a lot to say about the City official who blamed us for the last-minute nature of our sponsorship request to City Council, when we had been waiting on her for months to provide the documents we needed to make the request.
As for the organization, the structural problems predate anyone serving on the board or as a volunteer. When you look at long-lived events like the A2 Summer Festival, there’s careful foundation and grant work being done, along with investment. The Heritage Festival never had any of that, choosing to put its once considerable reserves from the old days into low risk, low yield investments, and calling it a day. If you’re looking to create an event that’s multigenerational, you really need to create a robust organization, not just look to see if you’d paid the bills at the end of the summer. By 2012, when I took over, the answer to that paying the bills question had become “not so much.”
MARK: Going forward, post-Clock, how do you see the festival doing? Can it continue to exist as a volunteer-run organization?
ANDY: I would never underestimate this community. We shouldn’t have made it as far as we did with what we were given to work with, but we managed. It would have to be a very well coordinated group of at least 15-20 people just to properly manage the planning, with another couple of hundred volunteers to invest in it. Maybe it can become an internship incubator for EMU. That was one of the avenues I was trying to explore at the end.
MARK: When you first took this job, you knew that it might turn out like this, right? I mean, you took over a 35 year old organization with an aging board, in an environment of austerity, and you seemed intent on shaking things up. More beer. More things for younger people. All the politics aside, you must have known that it would be rough…
ANDY: Yes, I knew that it could blow up in my face. But, at the same time, coming from the Jamboree, where we faced some really big obstacles, I thought I was taking the helm of a beloved event that everyone supported. Turns out that wasn’t the case. I have to say, though, the support we got from our volunteers and community partners still makes it worth it. Having worked with Malissa, Growing Hope, DIYPSI, 826, Ozone House, Kayj from First Fridays/Community Rebirth, and so many more, I’m just blown away by the work being done to support Ypsilanti, despite the lack of offical support.
MARK: Anything else?
ANDY: I would just point out that, if the City would have been willing to cut just the fees (not reimbursements for services) and scale back some of the new charges for equipment (like signs and traffic cones), the festival would have come within one or two thousand dollars of breaking even. And, again, that’s with the festival still paying for all police, fire, and DPW employee time. I have always thought that was a pretty fair trade-off for an event whose only mission was to promote all things Ypsilanti.
It’s also importat to remember the festival’s mission in regards to nonprofits. Part of the reason for creating the event was to give Ypsilanti’s many community groups a chance at outreach and fundraising, and to this day, around 70 community groups participate each year. The festival represents the largest fundraising event for the Kiwanis, the Rotary, Boy Scout Troop 290, and many other groups. UofM, HVA, St. Joe’s and more partner for free health screenings. The local schools all take part. There are free kid’s activities from FLY, the Girl Scouts, YDL, and more. You would think what those groups alone give back to the community would be enough to get some support from the City for the festival, but that’s not been the case. A thin majority of the board has chose to blame my… shall we say… outspoken position on such issues, but I really don’t think that’s a proper assessment of the situation.
In the end, I’m proud of what we accomplished, even if we were well short of my goal; which was to make the festival into something sustainable that I could hand off to another generation. I’ll get over any ill will that I have. I know that the actions the board took were, in their opinion, for the best interest of the festival. I’m aware that I can be abrasive and/or offensive, but I think that was pretty clear before I was hired. Ultimately, I’m looking forward to new opportunities, and finding something that puts a little less strain on my personal life. The festival was a great experience, but I’m ready to move on. Thanks to everyone who supported me over the last few years, and I’m looking forward to helping out with everyone else’s projects now. I’m pretty sure I owe infinite hours to a number of people.
[Still want more? Check out Andy's letter of resignation.]