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Are Oceanfront festivals for tourists or locals? A Virginia Beach task force weighs in.

A city task force weighed the size and type of festivals that should be given priority at the Oceanfront and presented its recommendations to the council Tuesday. A crowd at Something in the Water music festival awaits artists Friday, April 28, 2023 at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront.
Photo by Mike Diller
A city task force considered the size and type of festivals that should be given priority at the Oceanfront and presented its recommendations to the council Tuesday. A crowd at Something in the Water music festival awaits artists Friday, April 28, 2023 at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront.

A 90-day task force appointed to provide guidance on city-sponsored festivals said professionally-produced events that draw large crowds should have priority at the city’s main stage.

A task force said the Oceanfront should be reserved for tourism events that would fill at least 1,000 hotel rooms, pushing smaller community events to other parks or venues in Virginia Beach during the resort season.

That was one of several recommendations presented Tuesday by a 90-day Festival Task Force convened by the City Council to guide policies for public spending on the growing number of events in the city.

The group, which met for the first time in February, defined community festivals as events that attract a more local audience, and tourism events as those that bring in visitors from outside a 50-mile radius and fill at least 1,000 hotel rooms.

The definitions proposed by the task force — and the priorities assigned to each, such as reserving the Oceanfront for larger events — raised some disagreement from members of Council.

“It’s their Oceanfront too,” Councilmember Michael Berlucchi said. “The notion that a community event shouldn’t be able to occur during resort season if it doesn't produce hotel nights feels frankly exclusionary of Virginia Beach residents.”

Councilmember Joash Schulman, on the other hand, said the city needs to protect its image by making sure the events at the Oceanfront are well-produced.

The group also advised the city to allocate funding from the general fund to sponsor community fests, rather than using the tourism fund, and to create a Community Event Funding Committee to evaluate local events. The Conventions and Visitors Bureau would continue to handle tourism events.

Councilmember Chris Taylor noted residents and businesses outside the Oceanfront contribute a large share of food and beverage taxes to the city’s tourism fund, and said community events should have access to municipal support without having to ask the city manager to find money in the general fund.

Other recommendations from the task force, made up of leaders from local businesses and community organizations, included standardizing the application process to qualify for city sponsorship of a festival and holding festival producers accountable for spending of city funds.

Council is not obligated to adopt the task force’s recommendations, and will decide whether to vote on items from the report at upcoming meetings.

The task force also wants community and tourism events’ returns on investment to be evaluated based on different orders of priorities. Community events should be appealing to a diverse audience and provide a sense of inclusion and connectedness; create a positive image of the city; and benefit the local economy, in that order. For tourism events, the priorities should be inverted: they should provide a financial benefit; create a positive image of Virginia Beach; and provide for community connectedness.

“We’re not in the business of making money off these festivals,” Schulman said. “The real return beyond the financial is the image, the community-building, everything that makes us an attractive destination for people to visit and for residents to go down and enjoy.”

The city has lost money on some large festivals, according to a report commissioned by the council and presented in February. For example, the city lost money on two non-ticketed events: The Boardwalk Art Show in October and the Jackalope Fest in June. In all, Virginia Beach spent more than $4 million to turn a profit of about $1 million on eight large-scale festivals in 2023.

City council voted to convene the task force in December 2023, and it was composed of 16 members: designees from each council member and representatives of the Virginia Beach Restaurant Association, Resort Advisory Commission, Minority Business Council, Central Business District Association, Arts and Humanities Commission and Virginia Beach Hotel Association.

The city council was complimentary of the task force’s work but felt the distinctions between community and tourism events could lead to confusion. For example, the recent East Coast Surfing Championships did not fit neatly into the categories because it was an international competition but drew mainly local crowds. The festival season continues this weekend with the Jackalope Fest at the Oceanfront.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

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