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Britt attendance falls 12 percent in 2009

A sour economy, thunderstorms and performer cancellations contributed to a 12 percent drop in attendance for the Britt Festivals' 2009 season.

The attendance decline from 69,000 in 2008 to 61,000

(this figure has been corrected) this year means Britt will redouble its membership efforts and look for more cost savings, including staff furloughs, said Angela Warren, Britt's interim executive director.

"We hope to increase our income from contributions, sponsors and members," she said. "We're looking at changing our business model — should we do more or fewer shows? We're cutting expenses so we're as lean and mean as we can be."

Most of Britt's 15 full-time workers will take December off without pay, she said. A wage freeze started a year ago will continue through this year,

(this sentence has been clarified) as will the practice of cutting paid vacations and leaving vacant positions open, she added. Use of volunteer help also has increased.

Because of the failure to obtain a grant it has normally received, said Warren, Britt has decided to cancel a program supported by its fall Britt Institute, an education program.

(This sentence has been corrected.)

Warren said that despite the economic problems, Britt should not be worried whether the festivals will survive.

"You should be worried about (increasing sponsorship) support and effort, but are we going to shut the doors? Absolutely not. We're just trying to be creative about becoming sustainable."

Incoming Britt President Ken Wells echoed the determination.

"Britt is going to be here a very long time," he said. "It's a nonprofit organization and it's a real treasure, part of the fabric of our lives and is not by any means in dire straits."

Most of the organization's fundraising takes place in the first quarter and, at that time in 2009, Wells added, "consumer confidence was at an all-time low and spending was in the tank." The festivals did have six sold-out concerts: The Moody Blues, Trace Adkins, Diana Krall, Creedence Clearwater Revisited, Pink Martini presents Oregon! Oregon! and Michael Franti & Spearhead. James Taylor played last week to a crowd of 5,000 at Britt's Lithia Motors Amphitheater.

But in Jacksonville, Britt endured lightning storms on its opening weekend and cancellations by Natalie Cole, Etta James and the Regeneration Tour — the most cancellations in its 47-year history, Warren said.

By mid-July, Britt was down 21 percent from last year, but rebounded with a stronger second half.

"Whether it's due to a bounce in the economy or people just bought later because of tight budgets, we ended up only 12 percent down," she said.

In addition to cost-cutting, Britt will be more aggressive in pursuing grants, said Wells, as well as more forceful in negotiating artist fees, a practice already in place this year.

"This year, if an artist gets, say, $60,000, we say we'll guarantee $45,000 and a bonus if we hit attendance goals," said Wells. "They were a lot more willing to do it this year. In the past, we never could afford James Taylor. He was off the charts. But because of risk-abatement, we were able to get him and it was one of the great shows."

Britt board President Alan Harper said the economic straits mean the festival must "move forward and look at reducing overhead and expenses without minimizing this unbelievable experience on the hill."

The key to surviving and thriving in hard times, Harper said, is that "you've got to be focused and really return to building that community connection, building membership and member relations."

"When you have 2,100 seats, tickets aren't going to cover the cost of production. Board members have to ramp up involvement and build memberships and the endowment."

As it gets more creative with its program budget, Britt may look at a smaller orchestra, more local acts and "movie night," such as its "All Together Now," a film about the Beatles and Cirque De Soleil, put on with the Ashland Independent Film Festival.

"It was an $8 a ticket," said Wells. "It was phenomenal. Almost 900 people came — and Beatles music on those Britt speakers, the film was great but the atmosphere struck me as everyone relaxing and enjoying a magic night."

In the coming year, Britt will have to consider its long season against its small population base, perhaps closing the gap, said Wells, by appealing to different populations, such as this year's Los Tigres Del Norte for Latinos and two pop shows aimed at younger adults.

Britt Festivals reached an attendance peak in 2005 with 80,000 but has declined most years since

(this sentence has been corrected).

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.