'Statesman' Demagoguery on SXSW and Special Events

It's no secret that though they are separate businesses, SXSW and The Austin Chronicle share partial ownership. Over the years, therefore, we have shied away from overtly editorializing on SXSW-related issues. However, as both publisher of the Chronicle and a co-director of SXSW, I feel compelled to break this code of self-censorship, to address two ludicrous pieces that ran in the Austin American-Statesman this week – first a news story and then an editorial – both riddled with inaccuracies that are misleading to the public and potentially to civic leaders. In the interest of furthering an educated discussion on SXSW and Special Events in general – as the city is valiantly attempting to do, in a process SXSW wholeheartedly supports – here are a couple of basic points people should understand:

1) SXSW LLC is not the same as SXSW Week.

Only perhaps a quarter of the people Downtown during SXSW Music weekend are SXSW customers. SXSW didn't encourage the rest to be there, and we're not responsible for them. We pay rentals, fees, security, etc., for the events we put on for our customers, but we don't run the whole Downtown spring-break phenomenon, and we don't profit from it. Indeed, we are very optimistic that the current review process will lead to an improved policy regarding event licenses for the Downtown area during SXSW, and a reduction of the spring-­break­ish atmosphere that has never been a benefit to our event.

2) Fee waivers are not the major issue.

Contrary to what was printed repeatedly in the Statesman, the city definitively did not grant "$755,644 in fee waivers for the weeklong event." They granted $274,320 in fee waivers, and paid $481,324 in expenses for police, fire, dumpsters, barricades, etc. for the general public. Those are two wholly separate issues; conflating them into one number is not only factually inaccurate, it makes it impossible to discuss either one.

On the fee waiver side of the ledger, there's a list of some 25 items, large and small, mostly supporting free public community events produced by SXSW, or representing city sponsorship. (And in most cases, I expect, if the city didn't grant the waiver, SXSW wouldn't do the event or use the service, and the fee wouldn't be collected anyway.) There's a list posted at the end of this piece; want to gripe about any of the line items? Be my guest.

But to lump that in with the $481,000 for city services (largely police overtime) provided during SXSW, but not for SXSW, and not even primarily for SXSW customers, but largely for the 700-plus publicized non-SXSW events taking place concurrently, is factually wrong, and does nothing to advance the real discussion which needs to take place around Austin's Special Events fees and policies:

Yes, the city has to pick up a hefty price tag for policing, traffic, sanitation, etc. during SXSW and other major events (much as they do every weekend on Sixth Street, by the way). That's what we pay as a city, and in return we get hotel taxes, employment, and other presumed benefits of being a tourist destination. SXSW presents a particularly difficult issue, because one of the big benefits of SXSW to the local economy is that, uniquely among local events (Formula One, ACL, Pecan Street Fest, etc.), we don't control most of the space our event takes place in; and for the most part, we don't sell people food and drink. So that's great for local bars, restaurants, and stores; it has become less great in other ways. And it means any significant changes really have to have buy-in from a lot of different interests. Whether those extra quarter-­million people who are not SXSW registrants are actually to the city's benefit is, I think, an open question: They certainly bring a lot of money into the economy, but they also cost a lot of money to take care of. The current situation is most certainly not where SXSW has wanted to go; the ongoing process will presumably determine where the city wants to go.

PS: Just because they're so egregious: Here are the primary factual errors regarding SXSW in last Thursday's "Fees come up short in paying for Austin's special events," and this Wednes­day's editorial "Make big events pay their own way":

1) The opening sentence of the Thursday article – along with the lead graphic chart – is flatly, factually wrong, setting the tone for the entire piece: The city did not grant "$755,644 in fee waivers for the weeklong event." This factual error is repeated in the editorial.

2) Similarly, the city of Austin did not "spend $23.9 million to support such events as SXSW ..." – you get to that figure only by including all routine expenses, and counting fee waivers as actual cash spent. In the immortal words of Emily Litella, “Never Mind.” This figure is taken directly from a May 21 memo from staff to city council, and while there’s a lot wrong with that memo (see the next Chronicle issue for more on that), I shouldn’t have blamed the Statesman for citing those figures. Sincere apologies to all concerned for the error, and any confusion it may have caused. Just pretend I only listed two things here.

3) In closing, the editorial board notes that from 2009­ to 2013, ACL Fest promoters C3 "contributed $440,548 to charitable causes, including the Austin Parks Foun­da­tion. By contrast, SXSW made no charitable contributions to the city during that period." Well, the city is not a charity, so no one makes charitable contributions to it, but during that time period, SXSW did make over $1 million in charitable contributions to local civic charities, including $350,000 to the Austin Parks Foundation, specifically earmarked for parks improvements. Not that that's relevant to anything, of course, except to illustrate the States­­man editorial board's disdain for facts in their overweening hatred of all things Chronicle.

List of 2014 SXSW Fee Waivers

$15,000: Event Day Fees for Butler Park (Parks and Recreation)

$1,000: Event Set Up Fees for Butler Park (Parks and Recreation)

$1,000: Event Take Down/Clean­up Day Fees for Butler Park (Parks and Recreation)

$1,500: Utility Fee for Butler Park (Parks and Recreation)

$30: Alcohol Permit Fee for Butler Park (Parks and Recreation)

$30: Sound Permit Fee for Butler Park (Parks and Recreation)

$500: Maintenance Fee for Butler Park (Parks and Recreation)

$20,000: Event Day Fees for Republic Square Park (Parks and Recreation)

$2,000: Utility Fees for Republic Square Park (Parks and Recreation)

$30: Sound Permit Fee for Republic Square Park (Parks and Recreation)

$500: Maintenance Fee Republic Square Park (Parks and Recreation)

$1,719: Event Day Rental Fees for Carver Museum (Parks and Recreation)

$181: Lobby Party Package and Kitchen Use Fees for Carver Museum (Parks and Recreation)

$800: Utilities and Equipment Use Fees for Carver Museum (Parks and Recreation)

$30: Sound Permit Fee for Carver Museum (Parks and Recreation)

$68,776: Parking Spaces Use Fee (Austin Transportation)

$280: Parking Application Fee (Austin Transportation)

$28,500: Street Closure Permit Fee (Austin Transportation)

$250: Application Fee (Austin Transportation)

$7,500: Traffic Control Plan (Austin Transportation)

$10,944: Safety Inspection Fee (Austin Transportation)

$6,750: Lamp Post Banner Fees (Austin Transportation)

$5,000: Temporary Vending Permit Fees (Health and Human Services)

$13,000: Standby Fees (Emergency Medical Services)

$89,000: Additional Street and Litter Control Services (Austin Resource Recovery)

$274,320: Total Fees Waived

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