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Can Rochester handle success? 

The buzz had hardly died down from June's Rochester International Jazz Festival, but festival promoter John Nugent was back in town last week attempting to garner support from business and government leaders for next year's festival.

            Over the next few weeks we'll find out if Rochester's got what it takes to build a new image as a great town for music.

            With June's festival Nugent proved he can deliver a great line-up of musicians and arrange performances at a variety of venues that go off without a hitch. Now it's up to corporate and government leaders to show that Rochester has a vision for the future.

            Nugent's first stop last week was City Newspaper, where he discussed last year's aesthetic success and financial shortfall, and his plans for the 2003 festival. Although he says he's 80-percent sure there will be a festival next June, Nugent needs to raise funds from corporations and local governments to make the festival financially viable.

            He's making his pitch with a lively video featuring the 2002 festival's top acts and local officials speaking about the event. This year's festival drew 35,000 music fans to a variety of theaters, clubs, and outdoor venues over seven days.

            To make a go of it next year, Nugent says he'll need a bare minimum of $300,000 in corporate subsidies and some commitments from local government officials.

            "It takes finances to make something happen," says Nugent. "It was a big investment personally the first year."

Last year's festival budget was over $700,000. (For comparison purposes, the Stockholm Jazz Festival, which Nugent also produces, had a budget of over $1 million.) The $700,000 figure may seem like a modest amount for an event with 50 acts, including Aretha Franklin, Sonny Rollins, Dianne Reeves, and Medeski, Martin & Wood, but Nugent knows how to cut a good deal. He's been booking musicians for European tours and the Stockholm Jazz Festival for years.

            Still, he says, most festivals are not run by individuals putting up a large proportion of their own money. The community has to step up to the plate.

            "[Legendary promoter] George Wein produces 60 festivals per year," says Nugent. "Most of these events are funded in advance by corporate sponsors. For instance, the Verizon New York Jazz Festival is a million-dollar sponsorship. Why is it worth a million bucks? The visibility of any company that sponsors a sporting event or a music event or the Olympics --- the sponsors want a return on their investment. They don't just give the money away."

            Nugent says his company, New York Jam, builds custom-tailored sponsorship packages so companies get a tangible return for their money, including visibility, product recognition, sampling opportunities, branding, business-to-business opportunities, the ability to entertain clients by giving away free tickets and VIP passes, and a chance to reward their best customers. He's talking to some companies outside of Rochester about being the lead tie-in sponsor, but he'd welcome a local one.

            If a major corporation, local or national, decided to sponsor the event in a big way, the company's name might be on the festival next year. Wegmans, Dorschel Automotive, Simcona Electronics, and the Crown Plaza Hotel were among the corporate sponsors this year. The City of Rochester, Monroe County, and Senator Jim Alesi also contributed funds.

            That wasn't bad for the first year, but now that Nugent has proven himself, he wants corporations and government to kick in more. He's confident that he will find the support he needs and that the festival will grow into an image-making event.

            "My goal is to make this the most successful and respected jazz festival, definitely in the northeast of the United States, and, ultimately, in five or 10 years, one of the most respected events in the country."

            With the county facing a deficit, the city schools in trouble, and the stock market hitting new lows, Nugent realizes this is not the most opportune time to ask for money. But, he says, successful, long-running events pay for themselves in advance. If the festival makes a lot of money in the future, he says, he will give substantial amounts back to the community.

            What's in it for us? Just look at Montreal.

            The city of Montreal supports the Montreal Jazz Festival and, in return, gains millions of dollars from hotel bookings, restaurants, taxes, and hundreds of thousands of people spending millions of dollars. As Nugent points out, most jazz fans have liquidity, and are able to spend some money.

So what will it take?

            In the next six to eight weeks Nugent will need commitments from businesses and government before he begins programming, logistics, and publicity for a festival next year.

            "If the people who really want this to happen step up, I'll deliver," he says. "There is no question about it. I love to produce, I love to see things happen and I love to see people happy."

            The 2002 Rochester International Jazz Festival was one of the most exciting events to happen in Rochester in decades. You could feel the excitement walking down Gibbs Street every night. All over town the clubs were alive.

            Owners of festival venues like the Montage Grille, Max of Eastman Place, and Milestones all reported substantial business during that week. And they share an eagerness to work again next year with Nugent.

            As a community, we have an opportunity to watch the festival grow every year. By 2010 a large part of Rochester's identity could be tied to a great jazz festival. Tourists could be attracted to Rochester from all over the US and abroad.

            Three hundred thousand dollars in corporate funding, with some government money thrown in, seems like a small price to pay for the substantial image enhancement and revenue the festival could bring to our community.

            There are plenty of other cities that would give anything for a festival of this caliber. Let's not let this one slip away.

Speaking of Rochester International Jazz Festival, John Nugent


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