For the most part, the last couple of years have been great for fans of live music in Pensacola. The renovated Saenger Theatre has brought in a higher caliber of touring production. Vinyl Music Hall has filled a key niche for mid-sized concerts. And despite a troubled sophomore effort, DeLuna Fest has brought some terrific acts to our area for three years running.
Yet at the same time, we’ve lost some great free options: RadioLive, Sunsets at Plaza de Luna, and now, at the end of the current season, Evenings in Olde Seville Square. How did this happen?
Sunsets at Plaza de Luna was one of several initiatives started by the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) under former director Thaddeus Cohen, along with the New Year’s Eve Pelican Drop and Friday Night Flicks. All three were eliminated from the CRA’s budget last year. While the Pelican Drop was picked up by the Downtown Improvement Board (DIB), and Friday Night Flicks may be resurrected at the Maritime Park, the Sunsets at Plaza de Luna program — which combined live music with children’s entertainment at the end of Palafox Pier — was not so fortunate.
“The CRA was able to serve as an incubator for these downtown events, but could no longer continue them,” said CRA Administrator Ryan Winterberg-Lipp. “From speaking to Kim Kimborough, the DIB was not able to find a sponsor or internal funding to continue Sunsets. While they tried in earnest to keep the event going, the budget simply wasn’t there.”
RadioLive was another casualty of shrinking budgets. Not including staff or equipment, the annual budget of the free concert series was $25,000. That was removed from the WUWF budget a few years ago, but thanks to fundraising efforts, it was able to continue for another two-plus years. Last May was the last concert before RadioLive was put on indefinite hiatus.
“Although we were successful in balancing our budget and meeting our stretch fundraising goals this fiscal year in spite of the governor’s veto of our funding, I don’t see RadioLive returning any time soon,” said WUWF Executive Director Pat Crawford. “I guess the downside of offering a community event like RadioLive for free for 24 years is that when you can no longer afford to do it that way, the majority of the audience balks at the idea of having to pay anything for it. There were some loyal fans who really tried to keep it going, but their efforts were just not enough.”
Is there any hope of saving Evenings in Olde Seville Square from the same fate?
“There’s a chance,” said Jim Green, board member of the Pensacola Heritage Foundation, which has organized the summer concert series since 1987. But if the Evenings are to continue, another organization will need to make it happen.
“The Foundation wants to get back to preservation and education, and we just don’t have the manpower and resources to do the Evenings,” Green said.
Part of the problem is finding volunteers. Many people offer to help, but have trouble committing to four or more hours every Thursday evening, twelve to fourteen weeks in a row.
And money, of course, is a perennial issue. The budget for Evenings in Olde Seville is between $50,000-$60,000. Most of it comes from corporate sponsorships, but several longtime sponsors have dropped out or cut back in recent years.
“They don’t have the money, or they’ve invested it in other organizations,” said Green. Dozens of other festivals, runs and events all approach the same well of sponsors — many pitching that they can boost the area’s tourism, something that was never the Foundation’s focus — so that well has been drying up. “People got complacent and assumed Evenings would always be there.”
Yet unless another organization steps up, there won’t be a twenty-sixth season. Without Evenings, RadioLive or Sunsets at Plaza de Luna, Thursday evenings in Pensacola will be very different indeed. Green warns that focusing too much on tourism development and economic development can be a detriment to a community’s quality of life.
“I can’t show you that Evenings brought 100,000 people to the beach,” he said, “but what about the people who live here?”