by Naja and Arnaud Girard…….
Do you think White business owners should take over the management of a Black heritage festival?
That’s the tricky question that City Commissioners were set to resolve last Tuesday when once again they were faced with having to choose between two groups that wished to run the coveted Goombay Festival.
One group consists of nearly every church and non-profit in the Black community of Bahama Village. They call themselves ‘The Coalition’. The other group is essentially made up of Whites, backed by a White Duval Street business owner:
Not frightened by a bit of revisionist history, the latter contestants had defended their newfound passion for Caribbean heritage by claiming their families too have roots in the Bahamas.
Even though it has remained a poor cousin to Fantasy Fest, every October Goombay attracts up to 20,000 visitors. For 25 or more years it has highlighted Afro-Caribbean culture as well as Key West’s inborn talent for small-town drama, and undisputedly this week once again City Hall was the best show in town.
“I am begging you to not walk away from this,” thundered Commissioner Yaniz, both arms extended toward the group of “White Bahamians” after they announced that they had decided to withdraw their application for this year’s festival permit.
As it turns out that group, after being chosen by the “White Bahamian” City Commissioners in 2012, had apparently realized it had worked itself into a very uncomfortable corner. For the past two years the resentment of the Black community in Bahama Village, about the takeover, had been growing. And apparently it was a lot of work and the money wasn’t that great. [-$386] Ricky Arnold, Jr, a member of Shroeder’s group, wished the Coalition good luck and told the City Commission, “It just got to a place where it’s not beneficial for either side and it’s just not worth fighting over at this point.”
“In 2012,” says resident Donald Carey, “the City gave control of Goombay to people from outside the Village. It was like telling the people who’ve been running Goombay for the past 25 years that they didn’t know what they were doing. When the City Commission was saying that our Coalition wasn’t worthy of getting it back – that was sort of an insult to the whole community.”
But the decision to withdraw upset Commissioner Yaniz. He made some highly critical comments directed at the Coalition: “This Goombay Festival was a disaster. We had to send emergency crews to clean up. There were allegations of extortion.”
And so it was that the Black leaders of Bahama Village’s churches and civic groups got to leave City Hall this week, having retrieved the management of their neighborhood heritage festival on the one hand, but on the other hand having been labeled incompetent extortionists by a sitting City Commissioner.
The Blue Paper decided to investigate Commissioner Yaniz’ allegations.
Before Joe Schroeder’s group took over Goombay in 2012, the festival was run by Ken Sullivan, with Schroeder backing him. According to Sullivan, everything went south when, during the 2011 Goombay event, rather than renting a street booth from the organization as he had done in the past, Schroeder decided to erect two temporary liquor booths on the edge of his property on Petronia Street and sell alcohol to the revelers without footing the cost of booth rental.
“And so he was not paying anything to the festival,” says Sullivan. “He just wanted to make all the money he could from Goombay and contribute nothing. That is when I went onstage and I told the people not to buy drinks from his booths, but to buy their alcohol from the official Goombay booth, because he had refused to help bring about the event.”
Sullivan denies that he threatened to stock portable toilets in front of Schroeder’s alcohol stands or that he made any anti-gay remarks – a version of the story that is told in some circles.
Following that incident the two parted ways. Joe Schroeder’s name is all over the application for the takeover of Goombay, filed the following year. It is difficult to get an actual figure on the revenue produced from the sale of liquor during the festival, but we’ve been told that liquor sales from Goombay are typically between $60,000 and $70,000.
[Joe Schroeder did not respond to our request for an interview.]
Debt to the City
One recurrent claim has been that the Bahama Village residents who ran the festival in past years often owed money to the City for unpaid services.
Apparently, festival organizers had gotten into the habit of sometimes paying the previous year’s debt with the income generated from renting the approximately 120 booth spaces [paid in advance] for the coming festival. At some point after the 2011 festival the City’s accounting showed that Ken Sullivan owed $2500 for City services. That debt was the main reason invoked last year when the Commission refused to restore the festival to the Bahama Village Coalition.
Sullivan claims he’d paid in full in 2011 and as proof he says not only did the City not bill him for any outstanding balance but it returned the $1000 deposit he had supplied with his public event application. “If I owed them money at the time why would they have returned my deposit? I never received a bill. That debt showed up two and half years later as a pretext not to let us run the festival,” says Sullivan. See Letter from Ken Sullivan to the City.
It’s troubling to see the disparity in how the City treats Goombay festival organizers as opposed to Fantasy Fest or Superboat Race organizers.
For example, Fantasy Fest organizers enjoy a cap on payments for City services. They paid only $34,770 last year while Goombay was charged over $18,000 for an event that attracts 8-10 times less people. “Because of the cap,” Assistant City Manager Sarah Spurlock told us, “Fantasy Fest organizers pay only a fraction of the expenses incurred by the City.” The unpaid costs to the City for last year’s Fantasy Fest were estimated at $206,000.
Goombay, on the other hand, enjoys no such sweet deal and must pay for all of the police, fire and public works personnel costs incurred by the City. And, apparently, if they are short $2500, they are called incompetent and the festival is given to a powerful business owner on Duval Street. The City’s estimated loss on Goombay last year was around $5600.
Commissioner Yaniz claimed the City had been overwhelmed by the trash left during past Goombay events. It’s hard to imagine that the amount of trash generated by mild-mannered Goombay participants could have possibly appeared shocking to any Commissioner considering the monstrous pile of debris typically created that same week during Fantasy Fest.
The new group was to bring more openness and transparency with regard to the distribution of profits generated by the festival.
Goombay festival was making gross income of about $120,000 when Veronica Stafford was running it compared to about $67,000 last year with Schroeder’s group was in charge.
As to transparency, we are posting the document that the group provided to the City to show their accounting for the 2014 festival. It contains line items such as: “Reconciliation Discrepancies $13,966.00” and the overall document is as obscure as it gets. See for yourself.
Overall, we couldn’t find anything that would justify the strong accusations made by Commissioner Yaniz during last Tuesday’s commission meeting.
In a perfect world, it should not matter who runs the Afro-Caribbean heritage festival called Goombay, however, the withdrawal letter was read by Rodney Gullatte, Jr., as head of the group. Rodney is Afro-American from Atlanta.
Interestingly enough, Rodney had announced his resignation from the group eight months ago, in an email message titled, “Goombay Changed Hands Today,” and a photo was sent around to media outlets showing him shaking hands with Ricky Arnold along with the following quote,
“I pass this to you my brother. The future of the Bahama Village Goombay Festival is on your shoulders now. The responsibility lies with you and your new officers. Michael Whyms (Vice-President), Victoria Castellanos (Secretary), Joe Schroeder (Treasurer).”
If race and culture were truly not at issue then why was Gullatte dragged back in to read the withdrawal letter as the head of the mostly White organization that he had ostensibly left eight months earlier?
Well over a year ago Bahama Village residents gathered together and formed a coalition consisting of nearly all of the churches, non-profits, and the two fraternal brotherhoods in the village [13 organizations in all] to reclaim Goombay festival. The City Commission rejected their initial plea last year. Only Commissioner Rossi and Commissioner Lopez foresaw that the decision would have to be reversed.
“I love the people on both sides,” said community activist, Mike Mongo, “I must say the last three Goombays were wonderful and I want the next to be at least as good as the last three.”
Help us continue to bring you local investigative journalism… Click on the image to make a donation [NOT tax deductible].