If Sound of Music wants to appear before a Council again they need to get in touch with the Clerk of the Committee to ask to delegate.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  February 20, 2012  The Sound of Music Festival (SOM) is big business for Burlington by any standard.  It is a community based organization that got its start in 1967,  when the Parks and Recreation department looked for a community group to take on an event that had become too big for city hall to manage.

Ever the trooper, Dave Miller, third from the right, belts out a tune as part of a promotional event to develop interest in the Mayor's Cabaret. Mayor didn't sing for Dave's delegation when he sought an increase in SOM funding.

It is,  by any measure, a significant success and for the music industry in this province it is the stage to get on.  The city has had some very big names come in for the four day event and it has grown.  However, one thing it has failed to do is develop a strong relationship with both City Hall and the members of Council.  When Dave Miller appeared before the Budget and Corporate Services Committee looking for an increase in the SOM grant he basically got the “bums rush”.  He talked of plans to grow the event and they asked “when is enough, enough”.

There was clearly no meeting of minds and one has to ask why SOM didn’t have a sterling working relationship with the city it brings a major entertainment event to year after year.?  Why are these two organizations so far apart in their thinking?  Do the SOM people not realize there is a political aspect to what they do and that they have to keep Council members fully informed and that there has to be a top notch working relationship with every level of the city’s administration that impacts on the Festival?

One wonders if they didn’t move very quickly to meet with the new city manager and brief him on what they do – get there story in front of the man before anyone elsewhere at City Hall decides to give their version of what the SOM is and isn’t.

But that level of liaison with city hall doesn’t appear to be in place. Nor does there appear to be a really smooth working relationship with the Burlington Downtown Business Association whose members hurt when the SOM Festival is taking place.   Not that many of that huge audience drifts north along Brant Street or into the side streets to get a nicer sense of the city.

SOM has expanded their offering and there are now events that don’t fit into Spencer Smith Park talking place along Brant Street.  They want to expand it even more – but the Council committee wasn’t buying into their ideas.

The Sound of Music is believed to have a very sound balance sheet – I say believed because they don’t publish their financial results.  All the public knows is that this is a $1 million operation.  What the revenue sources are and what the expenses are is not detailed “because to do so would let our competitors know how we do what we do” , which has got to be one of the lamest excuses I’ve heard about why the financial kimono isn’t always wide open.

Whenever any organization appears before Council asking for funds – the books get opened.  When you are given public money – you tell exactly what it is being used for and you explain why you need the funds – and that means having your financial statements with you.

A creative accountant can put ones financial situation before the public and not give away critical information.  And, if there is a real concern, ask Council to allow you to go into Closed Session while you explain – and if Council accepts your reasons then the information is kept away from the public.  There is a time and a place for information to be kept confidential.  I must add that keeping the amount the city has spent on legal costs for the Pier squabble with the contractors is not one of those times, but  I digress.

Volunteers make this event happen; hundreds of them. Tent stakes being driven into the ground

Today SOM has 13 committees:

Communications, chaired by Hoda Kayal,

Eco Team, chaired by Jacky Miller,

Music Education chaired by Dora Falcone,

Finance chaired by Tim Miron,

Fundraising chaired by Erin Court,

Licensed Areas chaired by Debbie Milner,

Parade chaired by Kevin Picott,

Programming chaired by Jill Duvnjak,

Security chaired by Ted Mills,

Sponsorship chaired by Kim Horvat,

Streetfest chaired by Martin Harm,

VIP Services chaired by Rick Horvat and

Vendors chaired by Paul Munro.

which has to be an outstanding example of community participation for an event that runs from the Thursday of Father’s Day weekend through to the Sunday.

Sources of revenue are set out - Sound of Music wants more from the city and wants to keep their portion f funding up their with the federal and provincial government.


Like every organization that serves the local community as well as the larger community, there are financial strains. SOM has a budget that exceeds $1 million and they can give you half a dozen good reasons why they need a boost to the city’s grant.

Dave Miller, SOM Executive Director since 1967 appeared before Council Committee recently to ask for an increase in the grant they get from the city.  They wanted to go from the $52,000 they are currently given to $86,000  – a request that got stuck in the craw of more than one Council member.  One of them, who had a pencil at hand and was quick with the numbers said – “that’s a 65% increase”.

A council member politely explained that Boards and Committees were being given a 2% increase.

Miller piped up and said they were going to ask to have their grant raised from $52,000 to $96,000 but added , “realizing the current economy we would like to ask for support to be at $86,000.”

Data charts are nice but the Sound of Music people have to produce a balance sheet along with a profit and loss statement and tell city council if they have a reserve fund.

There was a stunned silence and Miller added that the $34,000 increase he was asking for could be phased in over two years, which would work out to $17,000 a year in 2012 and an additional $17,000 in 2013.

It still didn’t fly.

Miller went on to explain just how much the SOM did for the city.  The city saves $500,000 annually by having the event run by a community group instead of the city.  He didn’t provide much in the way of numbers to support that claim but nobody challenged him on it.

He added that $44,000 of the grant funding is returned directly to the city in permit fees, wages and equipment use.

The SOM is said to have a $4 million economic impact on the Burlington economy.  Miller didn’t back that figure up either and he wasn’t challenged on it.

One got the sense that Miller was saying: ‘we’re good and we want more support from you because we are good’ – but that didn’t matter, this Committee wasn’t buying it and unless there is significant lobbying and the figures tossed out are backed up and a sounder business case made – the Sound of Music is going to have to settle for the annual $52,000 financial contribution.

Saying that Miller failed to make a strong case is not meant to embarrass the man but when you want elected officials to turn tax dollars over to you to spend – make the argument a strong one – or go without.

Miller didn’t get a chance to get into some of the really interesting ideas he and his committee had developed.

Miller says that he doesn’t like doing these “dog and pony” shows and it showed.  The SOM people would be well advised to put someone in front of a committee that can generate some excitement and pump them up.  It would have been great if he could have piped in some of the fabulous sound that comes from the stages that dot the waterfront in June.  Councillor Taylor once flew to New York to listen to the Jersey Boys and told me that he was just pumping away to the “big sound”.

The Ladies of the Canyon would have helped - piping their sound into the committee room might have helped.

A section from the Ladies of the Canyon presentation last year just might have moved the room.  The SOM is all about show business but they didn’t dazzle a soul with their presentation.

Alas, the overhead projector wasn’t working that day and the sound system has been a little jerky of late.

The SOM team has grown the event into a million dollar business that can be made even more beneficial to the city. This is a group that doesn't have any operational or serious budget problems. They just need to tell the story in a better way.

The lack of really strong support from Parks and Recreation was noticeable as well.  If Council wasn’t “gung ho” on the festival, and senior staff didn’t come on side and the Parks and recreation people didn’t speak up for the event – then who is for the Festival?  The SOM people would say the 250,000 people who show up for the event are what it’s all about – and that is certainly the case but Miller didn’t tap into any of that energy.  Pity.

Something else was notable – there wasn’t a single person from the Board on hand to speak – just Dave Miller and his Power Point presentation.  Next time Miller should take a band in with him.

There is a future for the Festival – it just isn’t clear what it is nor is it clear what the community wants.  We know that Council is quite happy to leave things where they are.  Parks and Recreation isn’t going to put in any more than they are doing.  There are no Festival “spear carriers” within senior staff.  The Festival needs to find a champion and move this thing forward – opening up the books would help too.

Attendance of more than 250,000 is no small feat. It takes hard work and perseverance to make it happen.

The Festival did get into “greening” the event and while they struggle with the city’s no smoking policy within Spencer Smith Park (and any attempt to do that with a music event is more than a challenge – if you know what I mean) they are doing their best.

They want to be able to continue with the year round children’s music education initiatives and, once The Pier is open in 2013 they want to bring back fireworks to the event.  There was mention made in the presentation about national broadcasts of the event, Miller let that one slide by.

The most controversial part of the SOM delegation to the Council committee was the wanting to grow the event by adding programs and days to accommodate more visits.  The intention was to make the SOM Festival an event that started one weekend and ended the following weekend – which takes a four day event and makes it a seven day event.  That one just didn’t go down at Committee.

This is what it's all about. People sitting outside and enjoying the Sound of Music. More than a quarter of a million visits to the waterfront every year. Great!

The argument for increased financial assistance was pitched at two levels.  The amount the Festival saved the city and where Burlington was in relation to funding from other sources that had already increased their financial participation.

There was a lot of “happy talk” in the presentation made up of pictures and mention that this was a “free” event.  It wasn’t enough – the Sound of Music Festival is business – good business, but the case has to be made to the people handing out the dollars.   That case didn’t get made last week and the likelihood is that SOM will not get an increase this year.


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