Let me get this out of the way at the top. The following is my opinion based on the facts that I know which are either what I directly heard, observed or of which I have written proof. The following is not knowingly false, nor does it contain a reckless disregard for the statement’s truth.
Yes, that’s how bad this has gotten.
No, it does not make sense to me either.
Yes, there is a solution.
Two weeks ago, I went into my local City Council meeting and spoke in a tone and about a topic more honestly than I have in the last three years. Some were shocked at the change in my demeanor which is more often calm and controlled in public. Anyone that has spoken to me about this topic off the record and in casual conversation will see my blood pressure rise and superlatives fly rather quickly over the details but that has not been my public face and for good reason. Perhaps not for good reason. Perhaps none of this would have happened if I had only marched into City Council explaining this three years ago. And so my intention is to relieve some of my own stress in explaining my point of view and to shed some light for those who find that recent reactions are out of the blue. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I am one of the creators of the FAF, an arts festival which ran for two years in the City of Woodbury right outside of Philadelphia. It began as all worthy things should, with no plans. It was the brainchild of myself and another new face in the City who just happened to be an internationally successful event planner and marketing guru. I’m sure she does more than that but to this day, I couldn’t explain it all. What she understood was how to throw an event and what we knew right away was that while we had very different professions, we worked the same – tirelessly until the work is done.
The festival was pitched as a program under the local Main Street chapter and was, in that first meeting, well received. The idea was intricately designed. The details would follow and the framework would be filled in by the volunteers but the goals were pretty clear from the start. 1. It had to exceed expectations to combat the overwhelming negativity associated with the City. We were new here so we didn’t really understand where this negativity came from but it was a hurdle that we had to get over. 2. We had to bring people into the City. Seems pretty obvious but so many hard working volunteers before us had tried to rely on just the residents to fill events or activities and it just hadn’t worked. We didn’t know why that strategy had proved fruitless but nevertheless, we set our goal for reaching out into the region, a region which had once upon a time looked to Woodbury as a center for arts and culture and commerce. 3. This had to be built as a grassroots campaign. It was designed to work from the ground up, to bring people together in a united cause which would give it strength and growth from the beginning.
It worked. It worked better than anticipated and certainly faster than expected but the work was increasingly more difficult as it took off. What started as 7 people in a room became 20, 40, 75 and by the end, we would top over 300 volunteers total and we needed every single one with as much time and brilliance and connection as they were willing to offer. They were artists, professionals, citizens, arts advocates, merchants, local leaders. Every age. Every walk of life. We were researching ideas, planning, expanding our network, finding artists and sponsors and starting from zero with everything. Zero funding. Zero artists. Zero track record. To succeed, everything had to be taken to another level. So, we didn’t just post ads asking for artists. The build-it-and-they-will-come idea doesn’t actually work. We made thousands of individual phone calls and emails recruiting the quality of artist we wanted to attend. Then we’d go, sometimes out of state to every festival, event or gallery we could find to talk to anyone who would listen about the FAF in Woodbury. Where? Yes, that’s right in Woodbury. Then we created graphics with a vibrant, professional look and designed a series of postcards and media that could attract an audience. Then we had dozens of volunteers spreading out throughout the region, down into Delaware and up into northern NJ getting those pieces of media into every coffee shop hipster gallery open mic whatever that we could find. Every aspect of the FAF was planned that way, taken to another level by our leadership and with the passion of an ever growing volunteer base. The volunteers are what made it and what makes any other way futile. Hiring an outside event company to come in and put something together might get you a pretty good event but it doesn’t get you ownership and commitment from your community. We were building a community advocacy movement but didn’t know it. Yet.
Eventually, the idea started to take shape and we tipped the scales from begging to trying to keep up. All of the sudden, we were forging partnerships with major regional organizations and not just in the arts. There was the Philadelphia Art Alliance and Appel Farm and the Noyes but there were others as well, wineries and breweries and local businesses all talking to us about Woodbury and Woodbury was our favorite subject. Inside the City, we started to feel a change as well. Organizations that hadn’t worked together before or for a long time were now showing common interest. Volunteers were coming out of the woodwork, some who had lost faith in the City years ago, others who were new here and wanted to give their time. And give their time they did. The pace became feverish and we were barely keeping our heads above water.
As the months drew closer to September, there was little to no input from the Board of Trustees of Main Street Woodbury. What became abundantly clear was that our pace and the pace at which their Board was accustomed to moving, did not match. A tension was beginning to build, something we were far too busy to fix at the moment. What we needed was to push through the details of this event and get through it. Get to September. There was too much riding on this success, too many people invested, too much of Woodbury’s reputation at stake to quit or stop or slow down. There were a few members of the Board who showed up for meetings and put in some time, individually sponsored portions of the event and offered, what I considered to be, sincere support. Communications with the City were mainly through Main Street at that point and all permissions we were seeking were granted through a series of meetings with the then administration and staff. While there were questions, some hesitations and some concerns, in the end everyone seemed to be on the same page, or at least from my perspective at the time.
September happened. And it was wonderful. We not only exceeded people’s expectations, we exceeded our own. It wasn’t perfect but we made it through without any major problems. We had gone over the 10,000 mark for attendance. We were flooded with letters of thanks and appreciation. People of Woodbury were saying how proud they were to be from here for the first time in a long time. That meant a lot. The volunteers were invigorated and so geared up for round two but the leadership, the core group were drained. At the peak of production in August and September, myself and my partner in crime were putting in well over 60 hours a week. Remember, please, that this is volunteer work and not the just for fun because we want something to do volunteer work. I had a three year old at home that I hadn’t put to bed in months and my partner was saying no to clients and canceling vacations. Our families took the hit more than anyone and if you’ve ever worked hard enough at anything than you know what I am talking about.
Now what? The planning had to start immediately but relations with Main Street were deteriorating quickly. And let me stop right there. The Main Street I am talking about was the Board previous to the current sitting Board. I consider the efforts of the current Board and volunteers of that organization to be worthy of praise for what I hope is a reinvigoration and rebirth. This is in no way a continuation of previous arguments. Those perpetuating that this fight with Main Street still continues are misinformed.
The Main Street of 2012 was different. We were already starting to plan but we needed some help, some changes to make it possible to continue. We had not only thrown the FAF but were also responsible for at least helping out with the other committees of the organization and the expectations on us were growing. We had tried to express how hard this had become over the last months but I don’t think it was fully understood by the Board. I’d like to think that if they really understood what was being asked of their volunteers, what they were asking of us, that things would have been different.We couldn’t do it all but were willing to take on another year if we could have some help. We needed some outside advisors to come in and help us make some major decisions about how the fest should grow. Do we keep it one day or make it two days? Do we make more smaller stages or get one big stage and performance? Do we pay the performers or get better sound quality? There are a thousand decisions that go into making something that large and having some reinforcements from the region who had experience would help. Luckily for us, there were many highly qualified individuals from the region raising their hand. We also needed some fine tuning of our communications, of how we could more easily operate at that fast of a pace, etc…we needed to know that the few thousand dollars left over at the end of each year could be used as seed for the following year rather than asking us to start over from scratch each time. We also wanted a voice on the Board which would be deciding the fate of this event that we were pouring ourselves into year after year. These requests were not well received.
What started then was a downward slope of communication breakdown and a heated contention over what our rights as volunteers included. We were not to speak to the City because we did not represent the organization. We were not answered on most questions or communications for the largest and the smallest of things. We were marginalized and left to make most decisions on our own due to the simple lack of response.
But the ball was already rolling and the chance to back out was gone. Personally, I feared legal retribution. Retribution is probably not the right word here as it would imply wrong doing. The only real argument you can make against a volunteer of an organization is that of negligence. Could I be sued for walking away? For canceling it? It would mean non-refundable deposits that they couldn’t pay for and no way to fulfill any promises without us. I didn’t know for sure and I trusted no one, no one except the core group of volunteers that faced the same questions and arguments and verbal attacks and pressure. It was a pressure that ate away at all of us and there wasn’t anywhere to really turn and no real way of knowing whose side anyone was on. Rumors were being spread, accusations that were offensive and insulting and caused daily stress.
There was a new administration in power, a new Mayor and a little light of hope. He had been pretty vocal in his support of the FAF and I believe, actually saw the value, the big picture. What I didn’t know was that many around him did not share that sentiment and that he was going to bat for us behind closed doors. We were viewed as demanding and a nuisance to some and I can understand why. The job was a big one and it seemed to grow as the fest grew. They were being fed falsities about us, about how we operate, about our intentions and we were never given a real chance to communicate at that time. We had also decided to keep our struggles to ourselves so how would anyone know to come to our aid? We were unable to trust most and just as anxious to keep negative headlines out of the papers as it would hurt our chances of garnering the kind of success that we needed for year two. If the story became about the feud, the story would cease to be about the fest and in turn, about Woodbury and the merchants and the artists and so on. Year two wasn’t something we celebrated. It was something we survived. We were drowning and needed help especially through the summer of 2013. Up until June, we had our finger on the cancel button but decided to go forward despite all of our instincts. How we were treated, myself, my volunteers was appalling in those final months. We weren’t perfect in our execution of everything. I can admit that. I can think of a dozen things I would do differently just off the top of my head right now. I can think of a handful of actions that were rash and split decisions. We weren’t beyond reproach. I could see us melting down the closer we got to that weekend and I honestly couldn’t have blamed anyone if they upped and walked away at any moment. It is difficult to describe the amount of stress we were under at the time and I try not to think about it truthfully. It took the joy away from the event.
We made it through and we walked away. After a long break, we decided to start a new organization, a non-profit which would fulfill the original intent. The FAF Coalition was created by the volunteers who had created the fest and was a creative placemaking organization which set out to utilize the arts not just as a nice additive to an area but as an engine for economic revitalization. Our first meeting had 50+ FAFFERS packed in with lists of ideas that stretched far and beyond one event on one weekend in September. They wanted to take that same force that had created the fest and put it into beautifying the City, making year round events, developing arts and culture related businesses in town, etc….In order to do that, in order to even consider anything as large or as draining as we had previously ventured into, we would need to form a positive relationship with the City. Unfortunately, that was off to a rough start.
The Mayor was still our biggest fan and expressed his intention to support the new organization but others were not convinced and made no attempt to explore the hows, whats and whys of the last two years or the years to come. What was made clear very quickly was that the rules that applied during the FAFs no longer applied, or at least not to us. There was to be no alcohol on public property and we would be charged $50 per vendor for any event. In the efforts of establishing a positive relationship with the City, we decided to comply with the request to keep alcohol on private property for our fundraisers. We designed four fundraisers with a quick turnaround and little strain on our volunteers. In retrospect, we should’ve established a better relationship with the City before trying any kind of event at all and these were too quickly put together. We asked that a request to lower that price for vendors be put before Council. We were denied that request. We were offered the opportunity to partner with the City on the fireworks event but were left off of printed and/or digital ads promoting the event.
Keeping these events on private property proved difficult. The location of our first event pulled out. Now I’ve heard the rumors too that we never had permission. That is not true. I was there. I was in those meetings. We were given permission by their then marketing coordinator and were waiting on signature of the contract. As a matter of fact, the name and concept of the event were her idea and a great one at that because it was meant to promote their latest product line. It was a good deal. We weren’t going to be making much, only $10 at the door plus any extra fundraising activities we concocted for the evening minus a share of the rental cost for supplies. We wanted to bring 500 to 1000 new customers to the business. For whatever reason, the location decided not to salvage the event and keep it there. I’d like to take a pause here and say that I have no ill feelings toward this business or any other and would like to assume that perhaps we were not clear enough in how we hoped this would benefit their business. We found another location quickly but that wasn’t easy either. My partner and I were literally driving around town and looking at satellite pictures to find a private property, preferably an existing partner to get this done fast with adequate space, etc… We found a great solution but in order to comply with the contract of that company we would need to utilize an easement and adjoining properties. We were told by the City that there were objections to this property due to a concern over the security of the perimeter where alcohol was to be consumed and that it was across the street from the school. On a Saturday. In July. We were in full communication with the City up until then, asking for a meeting, asking for help in saving the event. We were a little bit over a month out and needed some assistance. We never heard back. So we cancelled the event and the event that was to follow, eventually stopping all production. We walked into City Council and have tried to avoid any and all conversations that happen outside of that room since then. We asked for clarification on two issues: Alcohol on public property and the fees for having vendors at an event in the City. The next six months played out a long conversation about these issues, specifically alcohol, until the ordinance was final containing 13 basic rules with the understanding that changes might have to be made to those rules in the future and that we should move forward with everyone having the intention to establish a trusting and a positive relationship from this point forward.
But we didn’t trust anyone. Still. It would be a leap of faith to put months of work into something only to have it pulled out at the last minute for reasons we exhausted ourselves trying to identify and avoid. At this point, the conversations became less about the organization and more about whether it was even worth trying to put anything in Woodbury. We had other municipalities asking us to bring them the FAF but we wanted our work to be here or at least focused here. “All roads lead to Woodbury” was the mantra. We continued to plan with an ever shrinking list of possibilities that we thought might fly within the City limits and I had held on longer than I planned since the previous fall. I resigned my position due to health reasons but in truth, I would’ve pushed myself further and to my detriment had we been in the middle of something promising and by promising I mean possible. I think we had been waiting to see how the City would proceed and the results were questionable at first. We had heard rumors that the first vendor event for another organization was not charged according to the new set of rules put in place regarding vendor fees.
Then June happened. As I said in City Council, my first response to seeing the pictures of the event was to be pleased for the organization. Good job. The event looked pretty and well enough attended to continue the event in coming years. Then I noticed there was no fence around the perimeter. No security guard. I started getting questions from people noticing the same thing. Another FAFFER took a closer look and asked for some documentation. In the end, 9 of the 13 regulations put forth in that ordinance were either done wrong or completely ignored. I heard it loud and clear.
WE WILL DO WHATEVER WE WANT.
So what’s the answer? It goes back to the beginning actually and the reason for writing down all of this mess in the first place, a task I hope never to repeat as it was as painfully long to write as I’m sure it was to read. To reconcile these events in my gut, I have to come to one of two conclusions. The first, is that there is genuine malice, that there was a calculated behind the scenes attempt to shut us down. That’s what the general consensus is amongst those who watched it go down. While there is plenty of evidence for this once you look close enough, details that I have even now intentionally chosen to leave out in the hopes that I will not be pushed to discuss anyone’s shameful behavior, on any side of this argument, any further. The second is that we were not valued and were easily tossed aside. I would prefer to imagine the second option as I have faith in the goodness of people at their core and it helps me sleep at night. Then again, this is Jersey. I will probably never get a straight answer, only off the record confirmations of things I already know and choose to place in the back of my mind so as to continue a civil conversation.
The second option means that mistakes were made and the biggest one of all is this and there is enough blame to go around, including me:
No matter who liked who, who disagreed with what actions, how much tension there was or bad blood or resentment or distrust, we all owed it to the people of the City of Woodbury to come together and say – that was worth protecting, no matter what.
What happened amongst those citizens and volunteers was organic growth, something that communities everywhere try and fail to replicate all of the time. We had it. If you know anything about City planning or community outreach then you know what I’m talking about. Whether you liked the fest or not, whether you liked us or not, I don’t particularly care. I don’t need more friends. What matters is that for the first time in a long time, people were coming back into this city for reasons other than jury duty and meetings with their lawyers. Our formula had worked. It could’ve been explored and applied to many efforts, other organizations, other pursuits. You didn’t need to applaud it. You needed to recognize that this mattered just as much if not more than your other efforts to bring this City back to life. We would’ve gladly shared the spotlight with you. I believe that we were at fault and needed to share this story earlier in the hopes of finding a champion in the leadership of Woodbury. Not lip service. Actual support – support that creates a wall around something, not in front of it.
If are reading this and feel the instinct to fortify your walls or go online and anonymously post something which continues to waste more time than you are missing the point. If you have any respect for me or the volunteers standing behind me you will rise to the occasion, be the example you want to see, be the leaders that this City so desperately needs. If you have concerns, let’s talk about them. If you have complaints, voice them. If you have questions, I’ll answer them. We can do better. All of us. This is not about alcohol. This is not about feuding groups. This is about a missed opportunity.
At this point, I’m ending a long and exhausting conversation for a much needed break both from typing this thing out and from the stress of this experience. As things stand today and as I said in Council, I would not recommend that any of my fellow volunteers venture into risking their time or efforts until someone stands up and is ready to pave a new road. I look forward to watching the progress.