Farmington mayor: Nonprofit should run Founders Festival

With the Greater Farmington Founders Festival at loose ends, Farmington Mayor Sara Bowman on Monday said she’d like to see a nonprofit board run the annual summer event.

During a 7 p.m. council meeting, Bowman said she has met with Farmington and Farmington Hills city managers, civic leaders, and others who have a “historical vested interest” in the Festival and its continuation. Conversations have revolved around the question, “How do we ensure that we don’t end up in this position again?”.

The Greater Farmington Area Chamber of Commerce announced two weeks ago that it will no longer host the Festival, which was canceled this year due to COVID-19 concerns.

The Chamber took control in 2013 from the Farmington Downtown Development Authority (DDA), which had assumed ownership around 2008 from a now-defunct nonprofit board. An earlier version of the Chamber launched Founders Festival more than 50 years ago.

Bowman said since the Chamber’s decision, a number of civic group leaders have reached out to ask how they can help. “I would also love to see citizen engagement,” she said.

‘Something that needs to get moving’

The agenda item  required no council action, but “if this is going to come back in July of 2021, this is something that needs to get moving along,” Bowman added.

Council member Steven Schneemann said a nonprofit would benefit the festival “because there is a passion out in the community for it.”

“I think if it gets too detached from the community, I think some of that passion also becomes detached as well,” he said. “I would love to see it infused with the love and support of the community once again.”

Council member Maria Taylor supports the nonprofit idea. She’d like to see it running with a volunteer base “as robust as the (Farmington) Farmers Market’s.”

Using infrastructure in place

Mayor Pro Tem Joe LaRussa asked about the analysis that went into Bowman’s recommendation, noting a nonprofit board had previously managed the festival. Despite past messaging about who owns the Founders Festival, LaRussa said, residents still bring their complaints to the city.

“Why do we believe this time it’s going to work?” he asked. “Why, when the public’s perception is that Farmington already owns it, why wouldn’t we want to own it?”

(Editor’s note: City manager David Murphy in a memo to council members said neither the DDA nor the city has the staff to manage the event.)

LaRussa also said having a group focused on the festival is a good option and asked for more information about who manages similar special events, such as the Spree in Livonia and Dearborn’s Homecoming.

“I think it’s a monster… I don’t disagree with the direction,” he said. “I feel like it’s a bit presumptuous to jump to, this is the way we need to structure it.”

Conversation number one

“My intention and my vision is not to give this away,” Bowman responded. “I see it as utilizing the infrastructure we already have in place.”

Founders Festival may also not be the same size and scope as in the past, she added. To preserve it, organizers could simply focus on core events like the Saturday parade, Color Run, and Ox Roast.

Bowman stressed it was too soon to talk about details such as how nonprofit board members would be chosen, although she’d like to see representation from both city councils ” just to make sure that all the information is flowing as this moves forward.” 

“This was just conversation number one,” she said.

City Attorney Tom Schultz said filing the paperwork to create a nonprofit is “the easy part of the overall job you guys have to do.”

“When you pull the trigger on it, it’s more a question of getting your leadership group in place, assignment of tasks, establishment of timelines,” he said. “It’s doable. If the majority is in favor, I think you start all those balls at the same time.”

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