Not All Festivals Are Created Equal

Last Tuesday, in an apparent disparate treatment of its constituency, the City Commission decided to allot Super Boat International race organizers approximately $ 25,000/year in free services (in addition to nominal rent and    $ 100,000 in Tourist Development Council [TDC] tax funding it receives) but refused to restore the Goombay Festival to a coalition of Bahama Village non-profit organizations because three years ago some festival organizers from the Village had been short by $ 2,500 on a payment for police protection.

This year, the Afro-Carribean heritage Goombay Festival will once again be run by mostly white businessmen who have no connection to Bahama Village.  Ricky Arnold, Jr. of Arnold’s Towing is one of the pillars of the group.

“They took the only thing we had away from us,” says Marvin Smith, a resident, born and raised in Bahama Village.

“Oh they’ve been working at this for a long time,” says former Goombay Festival organizer Veronica Stafford,” and this is their answer to all of us, to every non-profit in the Village getting together to reclaim the Goombay Festival.”

Curiously, the Commissioners, apparently so inflexible when it came to the detailed accounts of the Bahama Village group, appeared more than lax during the same session when dealing with the Super Boat International race organizers.

This is the case:

Last year when Super Boat International President, John Carbonnel, learned that the TDC intended to drop $ 20,000 off the $ 120,000 it had been receiving to support his organization’s annual Super Boat World Championship Race he took the stance that if his race was not appreciated in Key West he would take it somewhere else.  A few months later he trumpeted around town that Clearwater and Sarasota were both extending generous offers to attract the race to their shores.  Key West was going to lose the  “$ 30 Million” in gross business revenue brought here by the event.

This was the context of the advantageous contract negotiated between former City Manager Bob Vitas and Carbonnel, which was just put up for ratification by the City Commission.

The problem with the Commission’s decision is that the justifications presented by the organizers are far more controversial than it appeared during the deliberation.  First we checked into the claim made at the podeum that the boat races generate $ 30 Million of business.  That miraculous number however did not show up anywhere in the supporting documentation provided to the Commission.  We also checked SBI’s application for a grant from the TDC.  Again there was no poll, no survey, no real data that could justify its claims.  Just the claim that the number of visitors who come here specifically for the Super Boat races is as high as 45,000 and that those spectators use well over 100% of the lodging units that exist in Key West during their 6 or 7 day stay in November. Which makes you wonder how the fifty-million dollar TDC fund is administered.

Second, we checked into the infamous bids offered by the Cities of Sarasota and Clearwater to hijack the Key West Super Boat World Championship Race.  “I don’t want something that is going to tie me to Key West for five years,” said Carbonnel, “I need to know what all three cities have to offer.  I want something that is conducive to myself and the racers as well.”

Interestingly enough, however, as everyone in Key West worried about the other cities’ bids, no one in Sarasota seemed to have heard about it. This is the answer given by the spokesperson for City of Sarasota to our inquiry: “The City of Sarasota did not put in a bid or enter into talks with race organizers to host the 2014 Super Boat International World Championship.”

Clearwater officials had this to say: “I can confirm that the Events office has not had any correspondence with anyone re: hosting or bidding Key West or Sarasota’s Super Boat International races.“

According to an accounting presented to the Commission on Tuesday, the free services extended by the City to SBI will remain below $ 25,000/year.  But according to Mayoral Candidate Margaret Romero those costs are grossly underestimated. In addition to police presence for 19 days, the City is to stage a fully manned and operational fire truck and an ambulance at the Outer Mole.  The City has also agreed not to dock cruise ships on the pier during the event and under article D and E of the contract the City is to provide a police patrol boat and a fireboat.

Others point out that those expenses could be just ‘chump change’ in comparison with the possible exorbitant liability taken on by the City when sponsoring the event and agreeing to provide the security and fire protection on the water during the race.

Currently, SBI is being sued for wrongful death in the case of Jeffrey Tillman and Robert Morgan, who drowned when their 46-foot catamaran “Big Thunder” flipped and crashed in Key West Harbor during the 2011 race.  A separate lawsuit is also pending involving Joey Gratton who died, also in 2011, when his 38-foot Douglas Marine Skater catamaran rolled over trapping Gratton in a rescue harness that was secured to the boat. The lawsuits allege failure to provide adequately trained security personnel.

Under Florida Statute 327.48:

“Any person or organization sponsoring a regatta or boat race […] shall be responsible for providing adequate protection to the participants, spectators and other users of the water.”

Could the City be liable both as a co-sponsor and as a race safety provider?

There is an indemnification agreement and $ 2 Million/accident insurance coverage required, but would that be enough to satisfy all widows and orphans or pay hospital bills?  There is no provision in the contract obligating any other entity to provide security services aside from the City of Key West. Nevertheless, the City, generously entered into the 5-year contract with SBI.

And then we have the people of Bahama Village.  The Afro-Caribbean heritage Goombay Festival does not receive $ 100,000 in grants from the TDC or any abatement from the City.  It has actually accumulated a $ 2,500 debt with the City for unpaid police services. The City Commission, in keeping with its legendary inflexible fiscal discipline, was not about to tolerate such unbridled dereliction!  Aside from Commissioner Lopez and Commissioner Rossi, the Commission voted to keep the event from the group of non-profit organizations and residents pleading for the return of the festival to the people of Bahama Village.  There was nothing the preachers and good deed doers could say.

“What happened,” says Veronica Stafford, “is that the police would tell us we needed 10 police officers, but then 20 more would show up at the event and demand to be paid.  We would say, ‘You’re not on the list.  If you are not on the list you don’t get paid.’  So they would say:  ‘Do you want to get arrested?’ And you had to pay them and pay them in cash.  And when we were done with the police, then it was the turn of the fire fighters.”

Anger and disillusionment are the general feelings expressed by all the people we talked to in Bahama Village.

“They took the 6.6 acres promised to the people and now they take Goombay away from us,“ said David, a resident of Bahama Village.

“Goombay is supposed to be about connecting to our African and Bahamian heritage,” says Stafford.  “We didn’t tolerate nudity like at Fantasy Fest.  It was supposed to be about families, about our identity.  Now it has become just more Cuban food and Spanish music.”

The Commission’s decision is perceived by many in Bahama Village as flagrant proof of a pattern of unjust discrimination against the black community.  Apparently there may be a lot more digging to do when it comes to the allotment of public funds in our One Human Family paradise.

Stay tuned.

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10 comments on “Not All Festivals Are Created Equal

  1. I find this shocking, especially the allegation of a police shakedown for cash. Thank you for getting into this. Were the commissioners aware of this or of the powerboat liability issues before their vote?

    • The City Attorney stated that his office was not involved in negotiating “the policies” found in the contract with SBI but that his office put the contract into “legal form.” So the contract did recieve some scrutiny by the legal department prior to being put in front of the Commission and we assume that legal does not have concerns over liability – in any case none were discussed at the meeting. As far as what Veronica Stafford told us about past years and the City pushing more police and fire than needed onto the Goombay Festival organizers, we heard that from her after the meeting – I don’t believe the strategy for the coalition of non-profits trying to get back the control of the festival included telling the Commission about what Veronica says occurred in the past.

  2. I attended that city commission meeting and witnesses the entire heart-wrenching Goombay ordeal. Perhaps my recollection is foggy, but I think I was the only citizen who spoke during the Goombay agenda item citizen comments, who was not in the two competing camps. Because of one of the churches’ members saying she had waited all one afternoon to hear African-Caribbean music at the bandstand at the end of Petronia Street, but all they played was Spanish music, and because I have seen for years that many Goombay food vendors are not serving African-roots food, and I see the same vendors at other Key West events, and they come down from the mainland, I told the mayor and city commissioners that Goombay historically was an African-Caribbean celebration, and I said they, the mayor and commissioners, should mandate that Goombay stick strictly to African roots themes. During the ensuing discussions (lamentations) by the mayor and city commissioners, my request was not mentioned, nor was it mentioned in the Citizen, when it finally reported the Goombay war the following Monday, after I had reported the war twice at http://www.goodmorningkeywest.com. Nor does the blue paper today report what I requested the mayor andd city commissioners to do: mandate Goombay is strictly an African Caribbean roots festival. I would say that even if I was not a mayor candidate. I was curious why Margaret Romero didn’t speak to the Goombay agenda item. Too hot to handle? I was distressed by the number of ministers and congregants and Mason Lodge leader and members who used their citizen comments to promote themselves, their churches and lodges, and charities served thereby. But so little mention of Goombay’s history and African-roots theme and same being polluted by other themes. It came across to me as a war over religion and money, instead of a war over Goombay being polluted by non-African roots themes. I was distressed by a white Bahamian-roots several generation Key West Conch making commotion about his heritage, in defense of his camp getting the bid again, as had happened the previous two years. I was distressed because Goombay is not a white-theme celebration, and it appeared that fellow didn’t understand that. I told another fellow in that camp sitting behind me, Rodney Gullatte, who is black, that it is imperative they henceforth stick to the African-roots theme at Goombay. He said the reason for the Spanish music was because his wife is from Puerto Rico. I said that was not a good excuse, I asked him if he’d been to any of the Carbbean or Bahamian islands I’d said during citizen comments I had visited and learned the natives to those islands were nearly all African descent? Jamaica, Tortola. Dominica. St. Lucia. St. Vincent. Bequia. Grenada. Nassau. Grand Bahama. Gullate said he had not been on those islands. I said 99 percent of the natives on those islands are African descent. Gullate said he wanted to talk further with me and gave me his business card. I said I’d like to do that. During the ensuring intermission, he went over to Margaret Romero and got into a deep conversation with her. I sent Gullate copies of my two posts, in which I reported on the Goombay war, and did not hear back from him. I published that Key West should subsidize Goombay because of how important it is to the city. I published that Bahama Village is the heart and soul of Key West, even though many Key West residents do not understand that. I published that Goombay should get the same subsidy consideration the power boat races get, and Ed Swift’s Historic Tours of America’s conch trains get for hauling cruise ship passengers in from the outer mole pier – the city pays Swift $500,000 a year to do that. Goombay is not a white celebration. Whites should not control it. They have no standing. Nor should churches or Mason Lodges control Goombay. It should be non-denominational. It should be an African-roots Caribbean/Bahamian festival. That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.

  3. I largely agree with Sloan’s comments regarding the “pollution” of the Bahamian theme. This has occurred almost since the beginning, regardless of who was running the event. As is always the case, money is the motive.

    Back in the eighties, Goombay was much more of a neighborhood party. Home cooked foods were offered from card tables in front of private homes. Talk about good conch fritters…

    Promoting the event to the festival that it has become, involved charging large rents for booths which locals could not afford and the shish kabob wagons from Broward County rolled in. That was over 20 years ago.

    Not to be a party-pooper, but festivals are not the best way to promote a tourist destination. They are very hard on the infrastructure and much of the economic benefit is siphoned off. What we’re left with is a lot of traffic and garbage (which the Broward food trucks leave for us to dispose of when they drive north with the money).

    I know it won’t happen, but I would love to see Goombay go back to the party that it once was, where you knew practically everyone, rather than the festival that it has become — full of tourists trying too hard to have too much fun.

    I have long been an advocate of promoting our unique assets to diverse interest groups as the sanest way to support the economy. Keep the parties for the Key Westers.

  4. Thanks for the history lesson, Elliot. Saw City Commissioner Mark Rossi at Harpoon Harry’s this morning. Asked him if City Commission could make Goombay stick to African roots theme? He said no. I asked if the mayor and the city commissioners could tell Goombay bid winners they want African roots theme stuck to? Mark said he thought the bid winners got the message, and he knows Rodney Gullate and will speak with on that. Mark said a lot of money is made at Goombay by some people. I said I have no problem with vendors making money, if it’s African food and merchandise. Mark then told me about all the Key West black people he knows from running the cafeteria at Harris School, when they served good food there, and of a black woman in Key West who had worked for him being like a second mother to him. Mark said, when he goes with his wife to Nassau and takes wife into black parts of Nassau and starts using black Bahamian sayings, it changes everything – they never saw a white man talk that way before. Mark’s wife said there are white Bahamian-decent Conchs. I said Bahama Village used to be a black neighborhood; Goombay here was an African roots festival.

  5. All of the original white Conch families relocated from the Bahamas, notably Spanish Wells, Harbour Island and Green Turtle Cay.

    This, however, does not create a proprietary ownership in “Goombay” which is a Bantu languages word from the Africans who were subjugated by the very people who would now like to assert ownership of the clearly ethnic festival.

    The Arnolds have no more claim to Goombay than the British have to chicken curry.

    Unfortunately, as it currently exists, the Goombay Festival is totally inauthentic and the only battle is to see which group will financially exploit it in the future.

  6. So what can we all do about the unfair situation that is now in place? You can fight City Hall and try to get them to see the reality and fairness of the situation they have created. What are the chances of that? Or you could replace City Hall – get people in there who think like “the people” – sort of a take back your government thing. Both of these solutions are time consuming and no guarantees as to the outcome. Or maybe the easiest solution would be for the people of Bahama Village to start a whole new, wonderful Bahamian party/festival! For locals to enjoy, the way it SHOULD be done! Show up the money mongers in it for the wrong reasons. Show the politicians – LEAD BY EXAMPLE! The Bahamian party could be at the waterfront park! Maybe in the 6.6 acres that ‘disappeared’! I long warned people and talked at public meetings about what was going on with the park – no one listened. It is more than obvious there has been some private agenda for OUR park. Time will prove that. And there is little money to build anything there anyway …I am waiting …waiting…waiting …to see ANYthing happen there!
    Now about the Power Boat contract. I would like to see that overturned and renegotiated. It was done with lies and false information, threats, and with only 1 or 2 people from the city having any input at all – one being a city manager that was negligent in most all of his duties and now history! What the hell kind of government is this? What about a government of, for and by the people? One of honesty and openness that represents the citizens and is not a Citizens United! Do any of these decisions represent your best interests?! Don’t know about you but I am over it all.

  7. What hogwash… that more police officers than scheduled showed-up demanding to be paid and threatened arrest, only to be followed by firefighters doing much the same.

    I’ve organized several street festivals in this city – including the Sea to Sea Rainbow flag, and always knew well in advance how many officers and firefighters would be needed and what they’d be paid.

    Never… did any additional staff appear on their own to work and demand payment or make threats.

    I fact, those scheduled always showed-up as expected – without fault – and trusted they’d be paid without any guarantee.

    On occasion, some mid-level city staff or ambulance company personnel would suggest more staff was needed then we believed necessary. Yet that only occurred during the pre-planning and budgetary stages; where we negotiated what was appropriate. All well in advance of the event.

    Assuming for a moment, that such ever occurred… if any organization doesn’t know exactly what costs it’ll incur in advance of the event, and can’t later sufficiently demonstrate one thing was agreed to and another occurred, and act appropriately… then that’s just piss-poor management and not deserving of being a custodian of future events.

    My non-profit organization’s dealings with city staff were always above-board and honorable; which is a lot more than I can say for these accusers.

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