“C’est la vie” is French Festival father Steve Hoegerman’s go-to response when asked about his decision to cancel what would have been the 24th annual rendition of the Oak Park event he calls “my baby; my legacy.”
After more than 20,000 attendees and unprecedented expenses made last year’s French Festival at once the most successful and the most costly installment yet, Hoegerman was ready to pass his “quirky and unusual” legacy on, which he had been quietly doing. He preferred not to share the details, but under a new owner and director, the event this year “didn’t work out for whatever reason.” It was passed back to Hoegerman at the beginning of last week, placing him in an impossible crunch of time, money, and organization.
With only a month before Bastille Day (which falls on Thursday the 14th this year), Hoegerman didn’t have enough time to pull the massive event together before its set dates of July 16 and 17. “The festival is a big machine with many moving parts inside of it,” Hoegerman explained. “There were still too many steps to do in too short a period of time.”
Among the necessary steps was renting Oak Park, which—through the French Festival’s first decade—“used to be $500 or so a day,” said Hoegerman. “Now they charge you even for set-up on Friday and break-down on Monday. In total, it’s well over $3,000.” This number — which he says has gone up more than 20 percent since 2007 — does not include costs of electrical and fire permits, which the event planner must apply for at least a month in advance, and preparation of trash, recycling, and waste services (by MarBorg), event rental equipment (tables, canopies), insurance, and county health department fees.
“In particular, city and county fees and paperwork seem to spiral up every year… It makes it less viable for the organizer,” said Hoegerman. He thinks of the ever-increasing difficulty of all festivals’ bureaucratic journey as a classic case of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” and cited the ‘90s as a time when Oak Park hosted more than 10 such events. Without the French Festival, Oak Park’s remaining festivals include only the Greek Festival and the Jewish Festival, which recently started back up.
Hoegerman pointed out some detrimental effects for the city of when it discourages festivals. “About a third of my attendees came from outside Santa Barbara. They stayed in hotels and shopped in the area. This year they’re not going to,” said Hoegerman. Furthermore, food vendors, MarBorg, and workers from event rentals are among businesses and individuals that are out of Bastille Day work, and while most entertainers are paid only by donation, Hoegerman said they are disappointed primarily because they have always loved performing at the festival.
“People’s jaws dropped; they were stunned,” said Hoegerman. He called the public’s condolences “heartwarming,” and said that in addition to taking the “C’est la vie” approach, he likes to think, “it’s like Woody Allen would say: It’s nothing a little Prozac and a wooden mallet wouldn’t fix.”
Hoegerman is yet to decide whether he’ll try and revive the event for July 2012. His decision, he said, depends on “kind of a mix… Public response will be a factor. If more sponsors step forward, it’ll help. Maybe a person or organization will step forward to take it on. Maybe it’s just time to let it go… But I don’t know. It’s still too early,” said Hoegerman. He’ll also think about the decision on his annual trip to Provence, France, in September (for his business, Journeys to Hidden Provence, in which he leads a small group through Provence and Paris).
Ultimately, he will need to pass the torch. “I still want to be a part of it, but I’m not getting any younger and I want the festival to go on forever… It really is an extension of my personality and vision.”