Finger-pointing over Venetian Festival's demise

SAINT JOSEPH, Mich. -- Passions are running high over the news that the Venetian Festival won't be around next summer. Monday night the Venetian's board voted to retire the festival after 33 years.
"I think people did realize St Joe was here and it is a little jewel," says Connie Yore, the founder of the Venetian Festival. She is working in her shop Tuesday, Days of Yore Antique Shop on State Street.
Yore says three decades ago, when she and her late-husband started the festival, Saint Joseph wasn't a tourist destination at all. Yore realized manufacturing was leaving the city and it needed tourism. "A lot of people came into town that realized what a wonderful city it was and they came back later in the year," says Yore.
It started as a family-oriented event with log-rolls, a swimming competition and boat races. Yore admits it has changed. Its popularity became so big it led to the festivals demise.
"The only thing I'm going to miss is (the Venetian Fest is) one of the weeks we shut down, so I had vacation during that time," says Chuck Brinkman, owner of The Natural Gem jewelry store three-doors-down from Yore. "The two times we were open, we had stuff stolen out of here, out of the shop. We decided it wasn't worthwhile to have open," says Brinkman.
Brinkman was one of the business owners who returned a survey to the city in August about the festival's impact on Saint Joseph. He voted no. "Bigger festivals like that hurt the downtown. The tourists stay away and people who are actually spending money in town are just not here," says Brinkman.
Two-thirds of the surveys returned to the city didn't show support for the festival. Last month the Saint Joseph City Commission voted to pull about $25,000 in funding for the Venetian Festival.
A series of closed-door meetings between the city and festival leaders began. The most recent was Monday night when leaders voted to retire the festival. According to Laurie Draper, President of the Venetian Festival, the city wanted to see a smaller festival with fewer days and fewer attendees. Draper said meeting the city's demands would not have been financially viable.
Ralph Kitron, a 33-year veteran and former president of the festival, says the city drove the festival out of town. "They didn't show both sides of the story," says Kitron. He says the survey was skewed to highlight the negatives of the festival. "$25,000 is nothing to bring in $350,000 of moveable money," says Kitron.
Kitron explains that the festival has a $350,000 budget that pays for numerous local services and businesses."You don't know what you got until it's gone," he says. "Next year people's bottom line is not going to look as good as this year’s and the year’s before."
Yore says the Venetian Festival is one of the reasons Saint Joseph is the way it is today and it shouldn't be taken lightly. “I still think this coming year we’re going to have a lot of people coming into town that third weekend of July expecting that Venetian Festival and being very surprised that it isn’t here anymore," she says.

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