It only took one prominent voice in the Marquette neighborhood to raise a serious concern on a local list-serve about the growth of the Orton Park festival for a larger discussion to ensue. The posting was made late Sunday night, but by Monday evening Madison Alder Marsha Rummel already not only had a meeting scheduled with the community, but an alternate date ready just in case the first did not meet with the approval of the majority wanting to attend. It is heartening to know emails and correspondence can be read and dealt with in hours by our alder, and meetings can be scheduled so quickly.
The fact is the Orton Park festival has grown very large in just a few years, and there are legitimate reasons to question the role it serves in the neighborhood, and the impact it has on those who live in the area.
One of the themes that is now being talked about on the list-serve, over backyard fences, front porches, and in clutches of neighbors meeting for sidewalk chats is the volume of people who descend on this small park in a quiet neighborhood each summer. I have heard some speak about the statistic that was presented by the original list-serve posting. The number of people attending the annual summertime event does raise concerns.
I estimate in 1993 no more than 15,000 people attended the entire two days of the Festival. Now the Festival is four days long and there have been many individual acts that attract more than 15,000 at one show. By my estimate some shows have attracted almost twice that many. I believe the attendance for the entire Festival is now in the area of 100,000 people.
Clearly that number of people has an impact on the park, and the very old trees that now dot the place where Madison once had its first cemetery.
I am very sad to report that the large burr oak, tree #78 on the Orton Park survey map, is dying. That is the tree directly adjacent to the stage the Orton Park Festival has been using for the last several years. (The Parks Department tested it for oak wilt last fall – it does NOT have oak wilt.) I believe the stress caused by the Festival is a substantial contributing factor in the death of this giant tree. The Parks Department will likely cut down the tree in near future.
In addition to the concerns that this neighborhood has for the trees is the level of noise that this festival creates.
In 2010 I measured the volume from the Festival on our front porch at 110 decibels – after 10:00 PM – and my porch is behind the speakers. Current Park regulations say volume may not be higher than 70 decibels after 7:00 PM and that events must vacate Parks by 10:00 PM. In 2009 I measured even louder volumes.
So what are the issues that need to be addressed, and what must city staff be prepared to answer for what I suspect will be a well-attended meeting? One of the contributors to the discussion on-line listed a few questions that seem to me as striking at the core of the debate.
1. The purpose of the festival. The MNA site says that the purpose is to “…promote community building and culture.” It also states: “The festivals create a sense of community fabric that is important for the continued stability of the neighborhood at large. Outside of these events, there are no other activities that bring neighborhood residents together as a whole.” I think this is what the festival used to be when one could talk with neighbors rarely seen and meet new neighbors. That is much harder now with the huge crowds. So, has the purpose changed to one of raising revenue?
2. How much money does MNA raise at this event? In FY 2009-10, the net amount was about $31,000. In FY 2010-11, the net amount was about $27,000. How do these amounts compare to the old days when the festival was more of a local event? Perhaps MNA could provide gross revenue, gross expenses and net revenue going back 10 years. This festival is a money maker, but it would be good to know how much of the net revenue can be attributed to a growth in the festival. It would also be good to know how essential the net revenues are to the MNA bottom line (e.g., what would need to be cut if net revenues decreased).
3. Orton Park is classified as a “neighborhood park” by the City. A “neighborhood park” is for the recreational and social focus of the neighborhood. In contrast, a “community park” such as Olbrich is to meet community-based recreation needs. Is the current festival an appropriate use of a neighborhood park?
4. Noise and livability of the neighborhood.