Don’t stop the music

Fifty or so members of the local residential and business community came together at Ramekins Event Center Tuesday night to hear the plight of the now beleaguered Sonoma Jazz Plus festival. The public forum is in response to news that the festival has emerged from its seventh season with an unsustainable operating deficit. Festival management has launched an immediate capital campaign to ensure that the 2012 concert returns to Sonoma. If the campaign is unsuccessful, the 2012 festival will be cancelled. The forum is to garner public input and support for the campaign.
“The festival has been struggling in a down economy,” said Ramekins owner Darius Anderson who is also a member of the Jazz Aspen Snowmass board of directors as well as the Sonoma Festival chairman. “At this point, we need to raise $500,000 to cover our losses for this year and be on the right trajectory to move forward with next year’s festival.”

Over the years, Sonoma Jazz Plus has raised more than $450,000 for music education programs in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District which, with never ending budget cuts, would most likely not exist without this level of support. Additionally, the festival has given another $150,000 for youth sports. If the attendance at the forum was any indication – with the likes of elementary school music teacher Bob Gossett, to Mentoring Alliance Executive Director Kathy Witkowicki, and Laura Zimmerman, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation – the festival is a vital part of music education in local schools.

“Sonoma Jazz Plus is a multimillion dollar enterprise but at this point we are officially operating on fumes and we can’t fake it anymore,” said Sonoma Jazz Plus President and CEO Jim Horowitz. “After seven years, we are at the tipping point. It’s taken blood, sweat and tears to get here and we either get over this hump or we don’t.”

Horowitz continued saying that the event is good but it needs to be built into a Sonoma institution. “We need to attract high end corporate sponsors and patrons in addition to the ones we have now,” said Horowitz. “We’re doing a top to bottom examination of the festival and have prepared a survey that we’re hoping every community member fills out.”

Opening the floor to public comment, Horowitz first heard from local musician and businessman Stan Pappas who questioned the selection of musical acts. “Where the jazz in Jazz Plus? It’s all plus and no jazz, to which Horowitz responded that festival management have considered changing the name to make it more indicative of the entertainment.

Jazz Plus patron Michael Franks pointed to the need for more commercial sponsors and “angels” but more importantly, better artists and a clear marketing plan that would tell people what to expect from the festival. Finally, he proposed ditching the tent. “Bringing in and putting up the tent is a significant nut in the budget. Festivals the world over are open air. This could change the economics of the entire Jazz Plus event.”

Horowitz responded that the tent, while not cheap, gives the festival a “wow” factor but acknowledged that reimaging the venue could have certain advantages.

“We’re not anticipating having to do an emergency fundraising effort every June. We need the community to stand behind the festival and we’re hoping that, through the survey, we’ll have plenty of public input that will point us in the right direction.”

The survey should be available by the end of the week at Community members are encouraged to one fill out.

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