Rockford's On the Waterfront Festival to Discontinue

ROCKFORD (WIFR) -- Below is the statement from On the Waterfront, announcing their intent to discontinue the festival after 29 years.

Rockford, Ill.– On the Waterfront, Inc’s Board of Directors announced today that due to financial difficulties, the On the Waterfront Festival will cease operations.

For the past 29 years, On the Waterfront, Inc. produced events such as Groove Walk, The Rockford City Market, Gourmet Alley, The Perfect Party, Stars and Guitars, Stars and Guitars Rib Fest and most noteworthy, the On the Waterfront Festival. The OTW Festival was one of the biggest volunteer operations to have ever taken place in Rockford, with over 4,000 volunteers utilized to produce the event. The festival annually brought the region an economic impact of $12 million, and since 1986 it has been a platform for local not-for-profit groups to raise over $10.2 million. Each year on Labor Day Weekend, OTW brought 200,000 people to downtown Rockford from all across the country. The Festival has been nationally recognized by the International Festival and Events Association, and has won 46 international awards.

Over the past several years, the OTW Festival has faced escalating operating expenses and declining revenue due to the struggling economy, significant reductions in city support, continued high unemployment, decreasing sponsorship and rising entertainment and production costs. Following exhaustive efforts that included significant budget reductions, efforts to consolidate operations, increased in-kind support and elimination of staff, the Board decided that the organization can no longer “go it alone”.

"OTW flourished for 29 years and it helped many other not-for-profit organizations with its model of inclusiveness. They built an incredible body of institutional knowledge and I think that system or model they built is something that others can emulate, the model of grassroots involvement”, said Tim Dimke, Rockford Park District Executive Director. “Everything has its cycle and 29 years is a pretty good run, a great run, in fact. Maybe it's time for OTW to dissolve the festival and rediscover it for the next 30 years."

Faced with these difficult financial realities, the Board of Directors has assembled a group of visionary community leaders with the goal of preserving and utilizing the assets of OTW to continue to provide significant celebrations, festivals and events for the community in the future.

On the Waterfront, Inc’s Board Chairman, Tom Walsh, said, “The festivals and events we produced improved the quality of life in Rockford for 29 years by creating positive experiences for hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors. We are very grateful for the meaningful long run we had with the help of many partners. Our unique model of partnering with not-for-profits helped advance our mission of “Community Advancement through Celebration” and generate more than $10.2 million for over two hundred groups in the community. However, prudent fiscal stewardship tells us the On the Waterfront Festival cannot continue. Our future commitment is to share our event-production expertise and assets with others in the community, to pay it forward.”

The chain of events leading to the current financial status the On the Waterfront Festival can be traced back several years. First, the undesirable economic conditions and high unemployment rate in Rockford resulted in a much more challenging environment in which to sell tickets. The economy also created significant budget challenges for the City of Rockford and therefore forced it to virtually eliminate all in-kind services, such as security and public works support that were previously provided. Also, in light of the economy, the festival experienced a reduction of corporate sponsorship, as well as higher production and entertainment costs. The festival also faced two years in a row of undesirable weather conditions, and a negative perception associated with the 2009 change in the festival’s footprint to consolidate on the west side of the Rock River. All of these circumstances culminated in financial losses for the organization.

The On the Waterfront Board of Directors is exploring options to retire the organization’s outstanding debt. The first focus will be on ensuring that a small number of the not-for-profit organizations that staffed the 2012 festival will be paid. Commercial vendors will also be notified of attempts to pursue a timely payment plan.

When asked about the impact of the On the Waterfront Festival, Sunil Puri, First Rockford Group President, said, "I completely support On the Waterfront. It should be resurrected to be better and stronger, as something that can be spread out. By that I mean we must spread the risks, as well as bring more people to our downtown on a consistent basis. Also, we should reclaim it for the community with that hometown feeling. Make it affordable. We need to invest the time and talent so we can preserve these memories for our next generation."

On the Waterfront has been a philanthropic, entertainment and civic asset to the Rockford community for nearly 30 years. It has been blessed with the tireless commitment and efforts of hundreds of volunteers, sponsors and not-for-profit groups who have come together over the years to stage Illinois’ Largest Street Festival which has been a source of pride for all of Rockford.

“We sincerely hope that you share our pride in what the On the Waterfront Festival has accomplished, not only as an organization that generated millions of dollars for local not-for-profit groups, but also as an organization that brought so many people together to make the community a better place. We want to thank you for sharing the celebration with us for the past 29 years. We know that the festival was near and dear to this community, as well as the tens of thousands of visitors who came from all over the country to walk the streets of downtown Rockford on Labor Day weekend and we can’t thank you enough for that,” says former OTW President/CEO, Becky Genoways.

On the Waterfront has established a Fund at the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois. To make contributions to support On the Waterfront make checks payable to the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois noting in the memo line “On the Waterfront”. All gifts are tax deductible to the full extent of the law.


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