Scathing criticism of this year’s Spirit of the Sea Festival last Saturday and Sunday – including comments to Peace Arch News bemoaning a revamped torchlight parade that some are calling an “embarrassment” to the city – have again raised the question of whether the more than six-decade tradition should be allowed to continue.
Anger of residents and business owners focused on a brief parade minus all but one of the traditional floats, and that an event and display schedule concentrated only on the East Beach section of Marine Drive.
Matt Todd, president of the organizing Community of Lights Society, told PAN Tuesday that he takes personal responsibility for not meeting expectations for the event.
But he said his error was pushing for some kind of festival – even scaled-down – when his board advised cancelling the event due to a shortfall of funding (the event website said it was short $7,600).
“I stuck my neck out – in hindsight, I was wrong and they were right,” said Todd, citing a drastically reduced volunteer base and no budget for paid staff to secure grants as other factors that weighed against the event.
“I tried to make it bigger than it should have been, and pushed the limit further than I should have.”
But Todd, a former city councillor, said he feels the expectations of the community are grounded in rosy memories of what was, and not the realities of the present economy.
“The original model doesn’t just not work – it is completely and totally wrecked,” Todd said.
“The festival of yesteryear is just not sustainable – it cannot exist anymore. The corporate sponsorship is not there, and people are not volunteering as much, and that’s not just a White Rock thing, that’s not unique to White Rock.
“People have to accept, given that reality, that there needs to be a change of attitude and expectations, that the Sea Festival of 2013 is going to look a lot different.
“I’m sorry if that’s disturbing to some people. If they want to make the sea festival of 1953 happen again, we’ll be thrilled to have them on board – but I want them to send us a message, give us a phone call and show up at meetings.”
According to Lorraine Ellenwood’s definitive history of White Rock, Years of Promise, the original White Rock Sea Festival of 1952 was a new idea that benefited from the vacuum left by the collapse of the city’s first annual celebration, May Day.
That tradition, which included a parade, maypole dancing and the crowning of a May Queen, survived for some 25 years after the initial venture in 1923, but social conditions had also called its continued existence into question.
After struggling through the Depression years, it was suspended for two years in 1938 and 1939. A revival in 1940 and 1941 was greeted enthusiastically, but wartime conditions cancelled it again from 1942 through 1945.
Although it was revived again from 1946 to 1948, it could not live up to expectations, and criticism was levelled against a parade that did not live up to earlier standards. The lack of maypole dancing in 1948, Ellenwood suggests, sounded the “death knell.”
Coun. Helen Fathers said she wonders whether history is not repeating itself with the Sea Festival, known as The Spirit of the Sea Festival since an embezzlement scandal in the 1990s resulted in the dissolving of the original organizing society.
“I’m wondering whether it’s reached the end of its life cycle,” she said, noting she attended a recent event that traced the cycles of non-profit groups.
She said that if the festival is to continue, it should be taken over by the city, although she applauds the Community of Lights volunteers who have “held things together – it’s not for lack of trying on their part.”
“I’ve said for a long time it should be a city-run event,” she said. “We have to ask ourselves whether it’s something we want to do. Everybody thinks it’s the city putting this on. We don’t want it to reflect badly on White Rock.”
But Todd said he doubts that the city would be able to afford the staff resources to run the festival, or have the flexibility to respond to last-minute opportunities to enhance the event.
“City policy is too grounded in risk-management,” he said, adding that the only elements that could help the festival would be funding for paid year-round staff and enlisting community members with the skill set to serve as a fundraising executive board, as well as those with creative ideas for festival events.