Festival gives city its soul

ISOBEL EWING
Last updated 05:00 22/03/2014

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Womad organisers stared down Cyclone Lusi, but a possible greater threat looms for Taranaki's premier festival. 

Terry Parkes had never heard of Womad when he went to the festival in 2003 to set up a fresh juice stand.

Now the New Plymouth hospitality godfather and thousands of others can't imagine Taranaki without it.

"If we were to lose the festival I think part of our soul would go."

It would have been hard to believe a festival bid for on a far-fetched hope in 2001 would have wound its way into the Taranaki psyche in just 10 years. But there is no denying it is firmly entrenched, so much so that there is already anxious gossip about its future and if it will be here after 2016 when the present major sponsorship deals run out.

The event cost nearly $4 million last year, with ticket sales covering half of that and about $800,000 coming from sponsors.

There is no firm commitment from partners Shell and Todd Energy to sponsor Womad beyond 2016. That uncertainty added to the apprehension last week as people watched Cyclone Lusi approach, bringing ominous predictions of heavy rain, gales and a potential Womad wash-out.

Losing it would dent our confidence as a region and perhaps leave a void, as the departure of the World of Wearable Arts to Wellington did for Nelson in 2005.

In a decade the festival has brought $73 million into the region, but Mr Parkes says the atmosphere Womad generates outweighs its economic impact.

"The buzz that it creates is amazing," says Mr Parkes.

The value is in the way Womad showcases Taranaki on the international stage, he says.

"It brings people to the region and they come back, and sometimes they bring more people back."

Music promoter Dave Haskell, who first got involved with Womad about 10 years ago as manager of The Most FM, says Womad put Taranaki on the cultural map.

Before it, people in Auckland only spoke of Govett-Brewster when referring to New Plymouth and the arts, Mr Haskell says.

"It's one of the jewels in Taranaki's crown."

Further compounding the uncertainties is New Plymouth District Council's recent decision to axe a $400,000 underwrite fund.

This is used as an insurance policy for events like Womad, and the axing has given some critics the impression the council does not back the arts.

Mayor Andrew Judd nixes such sentiments.

"We absolutely back the arts," he says.

As well as the council's Major Events Fund, administered by Taft, the council contributes support from staff and investment in the Bowl and Pukekura Park infrastructure, he says.

Judd says it isn't fair to burden ratepayers, Judd says, when events could apply for funding through Venture Taranaki.

"To have another separate funding line in the times we are in doesn't make sense."

Although the fund was never drawn it had helped to secure events in the past, including Womad, by giving promoters added security needed to take a punt on an outdoor venue.

Taft chief executive Suzanne Porter waves away speculation on Womad's future. To look further ahead than 2016 is to gaze into a crystal ball, she says.

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As it stands Womad's three main partners, Shell, Todd Energy and TSB Bank, signed three-year contracts with Taft starting from this year.

"We're hopeful at this point that the three main partners will still be in there, but you never know," says Ms Porter.

"It's been a long time for those partners to stay with one event."

However, she says Taft will debrief with the partners to take onboard what they like, what they don't like, and what else can be done to get their brand out there or be seen as good community citizens.

Both Todd Energy and Shell have indicated their plans to review the partnership beyond 2016.

Since 2003 Shell has invested more than $2m in Womad; Todd has put in about the same since 2007.

Ms Porter says Taft has partners at lower levels with which they would look to fill the gap.

"It could be that rather than one large investment at the top we may be able to replace that with two or three lower level partnerships, if something did happen.

"You've got to be optimistic in this game otherwise you wouldn't actually do it."

She says if Cyclone Lusi had hit and forced cancellation, the expensive insurance would have picked up the slack and left Taft with enough money to carry on.

"We're very well-covered, but if there had been shortfall we'd have gone straight to the council and laid our case on the table strongly; we wouldn't have gone down without a fight."

She says there will come a time when one of the district's events will need help.

It's the nature of events - even without a cancellation, a bad weather forecast could put people off buying tickets and an event may not break even, she says.

"It's a pity [the underwrite fund] is gone and I understand they're looking for cost savings, but I think the brilliance of our city managers and politicians is not going to be on cutting off the low-hanging fruit.

"The arts is always the easiest thing to get rid of."

Former council chief executive Kinsley Sampson says the arts are one of the vital components in a diverse city.

"I am frightened by the decision of the current council to cut that underwrite," he says.

"I've seen a huge increase in local pride about New Plymouth being a great place to live since Womad began."

He says it is the city's "spiritual infrastructure" - parks, walkways, art galleries, museums, opera houses, arts festivals, community events - that attracts business investment and young professionals.

"It doesn't matter whether the spiritual infrastructure is next year's under-20 World Cup football, or this weekend's Farnham and Lionel Richie concert or the Len Lye Centre or Taranaki playing Counties, or Womad," he says.

"All those things make New Plymouth something different to Tauranga or Hamilton or Timaru."

- Taranaki Daily News

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