July 05, 2012It's summer, and with public officials fleeing for the beaches, government business is slow.
High Point City Councilmember Latimer Alexander used part of his down time to write a mocking letter to local news media, saying he found it funny how easy it was to identify local media outlets by their stories.
For Fox 8 News, he said, it's dog stories. "It used to be, if it bleeds, it leads, but for Fox 8 - if it barks, it's on top of the news," Alexander wrote. "You would think that we live in a community where there is no child abuse or crime – they are all about dogs."
More relevantly to this story, Alexander called out The High Point Enterprise (HPE) for its steady stream of stories, editorials, columns and postings on the City Council's funding of the John Coltrane International Jazz & Blues Festival, held for the first time on Sept. 2, 2011. The City Council, late in the planning for the 2011 festival, gave the Friends of John Coltrane Inc., the nonprofit created to run the festival, $32,000 at the request of Councilmember Bernita Sims to pay for advertising.
"For the HPE, it's a Coltrane story," Alexander wrote. "We drop the paper in the recycle bin following seeing another in the endless stream of coverage you've given to this nothing story. You've got 10 people in town that have nothing better to do with their time but write on your blog following the story. The rest of the 107,000 people in High Point understand this isn't worth reading."
Alexander didn't single out The Rhino Times.
Alexander is just one councilmember – and a lame duck at that. He has said he is not running again for his at-large seat in November.
A certain segment of the High Point population has been obsessed with the Coltrane festival, and the city money given or lent to it.
The $32,000 given to the Friends of John Coltrane by the council came from the High Point Downtown Improvement Fund, a $50,000 pot of money the Guilford County Board of Commissioners provides High Point for the downtown.
An argument could be made that spending $32,000 of it on a festival held at Oak Hollow Park didn't do much for the downtown.
You can also make an argument that the funding for the festival was badly handled, and that the City Council should have kept a closer eye on the festival, even though a majority of the festival's funding came from private donations, the largest an $80,000 donation from the Hayden Harman Foundation of Burlington, whose founder, Patrick Harman, is the treasurer of the Friends of John Coltrane.
There have been accusations that board members of the Friends of John Coltrane have been paid – which would be perfectly legal – but Sims has denied it. Even if other councilmembers thought Sims was benefiting from the festival, they trust Harman. Several councilmembers have said, privately, in varying words, that if Harman is holding the checkbook, they are not worried.
This year, the nonprofit asked for $50,000 from the city – which the council voted, as part of its 5-to-4 June 18 vote on the $328 million 2012-2013 budget, to hand off to the High Point Convention and Visitors Bureau (HPCVB), with instructions to provide the $50,000 for the festival out of its budget. That set off another round in The Enterprise, its postings from its readers and on local blogs about the $50,000.
The HPCVB is funded by a Guilford County hotel occupancy tax created by a local act of the North Carolina General Assembly. Part of the act requires 15 percent of the tax's proceeds to go to groups like the visitors bureau who attempt to attract events and increase hotel bookings. The city doesn't pay into the HPCVB's $1.3 million budget. In this case, the City Council handed the job of funding part of the Coltrane festival to the visitors bureau, which was set up to attract exactly that sort of event.
All of this merely backs up Alexander's argument that the Coltrane Festival is a tempest in a teapot.
Why does the Coltrane Festival story have such long legs?
One reason is certainly that the $32,000 the city gave the festival last year was handled irregularly. It was given to the Friends of John Coltrane at the request of Councilmember Sims outside the usual process for funding outside agencies. The nonprofit had raised enough money to book acts, but not to advertise.
Another reason the story is still alive is High Point Planning Board member and probable 2012 at-large City Council candidate Cynthia Davis, also has made the festival her signature issue.
Davis made some good cost-cutting suggestions during the budget process this year, including reducing the number of city employees with city-paid cell phones. But she is apparently determined to keep the Coltrane festival issue alive until the September anniversary of last year's festival – or Election Day in November.
Yet another reason, which Davis has, however, distanced herself from, is race – an issue which comes up surprisingly seldom in High Point politics, at least compared to Greensboro, but has been raised in postings on the Coltrane festival. Some people apparently think that because Coltrane and Sims are black, the festival funding is some sort of sop to black voters.
However, it the Coltrane festival is successful, it would provide publicity High Point couldn't buy. How many people would have heard of Newport, Rhode Island, (population 24,672, about a quarter of High Point's) without its festival?
While media outlets have tied themselves in knots over the Coltrane festival funding, the High Point City Council has spent hundreds of millions in bond money with hardly a peep from the media. The budget the City Council approved provides for the spending of $129 million in bond money, $5.8 million of it two-thirds bonds money that didn't have to be approved by voters.
During one City Council debate over issuing bonds, a reporter for one local media outlet, who shall remain nameless, leaned over and asked, naively, "What are bonds?"