Mariachi Ma& %s;ana?
Festival debts may sink Alisal Merchants Association.
Thursday, April 8, 1999
Whenthe fledgling Alisal Merchants Association (AMA) first decided to sponsor an "international" mariachi festival two years ago, AMA members were convinced they had latched on to the perfect fundraising vehicle to help revitalize East Salinas'' Alisal District while promoting the cultural heritage of Salinas'' Latino community.
Two years later, the AMA finds itself in debt to the city of Salinas to the tune of $70,000. Not only does this debt make a third festival unlikely, but with Salinas city officials'' seeming unwillingness to bail out the AMA, it appears as though the very future of the association itself is in doubt.
"What we''ve done in the past with the Merchants Association, which is a product of the [Salinas] Redevelopment Agency similar to the Oldtown Salinas Merchants Association, is provide money for staffing and incidentals to keep the association going," explains Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero. "Because they have a debt, we have indicated they would not receive money for staffing, and that''s where we''re at right now. They are concerned about their future."
Repeated requests by the Weekly for interviews with key members of the association went unreturned, although one AMA director, Luis Vargas, did speak briefly to say that the AMA hasn''t ruled out a third festival and continues to stand by the festival in principal.
"I think it''s important enough to keep going, but it''s a matter of getting support and sponsorships," says Vargas. "That will determine whether we continue with this year or whether the association does it."
For their part, Salinas city officials applaud the goals and efforts of the AMA, but admit the association''s delay in providing the city with a financial report on last year''s festival, and the troubling level of debt, have forced a reevaluation of the mariachi festival and the viability of the AMA itself.
According to Caballero, a city finance subcommittee has just completed a review of the financial statement from last year''s festival, but any decision regarding the future of the AMA and the festival will await review by the City Council, possibly later this month.
"It''s hard to say," admits Caballero. "I think the mariachi festival was excellent and one of the goals of the festival was to bring world-class musicians to town who do workshops for kids and young musicians. That was a big component, and was excellent, but that doesn''t pay for itself.
"The [AMA] is doing something altruistic but it''s also trying to raise money and those two goals have not worked well," she adds, who says the city has no plan to bail the AMA out of its $70,000 debt. "I think the association needs to figure out what do. It''s not a city project and I don''t want to tell them how to do it but if they come to the city for money, we don''t have a choice.
"We''re in an awkward position and have to make some tough decisions. You either have to be a nonprofit to get grants or make money off it. They want to do both but one drains the other. They have a real commitment to continue the project, but the City Council will have to decide if the Redevelopment Agency will give them money."
Exactly why the mariachi festival lost so much money is a question that city officials are trying to better understand. Although some officials attribute the loss to the kind of financial woes that start-up festivals often experience, others suggest the problem is rooted in the AMA having tried to do too much too fast, without having fully analyzed the festival''s true audience and revenue potential.
"They were a bit ambitious about things, which is OK, that''s how creativity occurs, but at the same time, when you''re playing with someone else''s money, you have to live within your means," says District 4 councilmember Juan Oliverez, who also questions whether the AMA fully considered the festival''s audience potential. "I don''t normally go to mariachi festivals and concerts, and I''m not sure a lot of Chicanos do. I [also] think ticket prices were out of [reach] for a lot of Mexicans in Salinas." Although there were some free events, tickets generally ranged in price from $20 to $45 for individual concerts, and workshops were $40 per day.
According to Jesse Armenta, redevelopment project manager with the Salinas Redevelopment Agency who served as the AMA''s acting executive director when the association was formed three years ago, the future of the mariachi festival rests on solving the festival''s financial questions, rather than any cultural ones.
"The festival came about as a funding vehicle and business venture, and I think it was a high quality event with a cadre of artistic talent that''s international," explains Armenta. "In that context it was a good product, but why it''s not working financially is the biggest problem that needs to be analyzed.
"Is it the wrong market, is the event itself too big to take on at this time?" asks Armenta rhetorically. "It requires deep pockets to finance, and it may need to be downscaled. I am involved as a liaison with the association and we have business improvement district committee meetings and hope to continue working with the association in that vein. It''s taken a lot of time and resources to resolve past financial woes, making it difficult to stay focused on other issues. From a cultural perspective there is value there. The question is, ''Is it the right event?''"
Beyond the immediate challenge of resolving the AMA''s financial predicament, the city of Salinas is faced with the equally difficult challenge of demonstrating to the AMA and the residents of Salinas that it recognizes and is willing to support the cultural/economic aspirations of the city''s Latino community.
"Do we value culture?" asks Oliverez. "Yes we do, and I think we''ve demonstrated a commitment in terms of resources in East Salinas.
"My concern is, if the purpose of the association is about making money, should we be involved in the process? Last year the city loaned them $70,000 to pay their debts which they have not paid back. They are in the hole and that''s the real problem. There is no money but they still want more money and help to continue this.
"We''re involved in promoting the economic viability for the east side, but to me, this festival is additional to what their real charge is. There is a question if can we afford to put these programs on, and I don''t know if we have the resources. If they can do it and do it well I have no problem, but in this case they are asking for money and we never got a report for almost a year.
"There are some people who would like to forget the loan and I have no problem with that, but is this proper charge for them and the city, especially if they can''t make money? I will support them if the rest of the council does, but I wish they could be more realistic and live within their means. We''ll help them a little bit but not that much. It''s hard to say yes when you''ve got a $70,000 debt."