COLUMBIA — Despite attendance numbers soaring to 11,000 people per night and a proven record of economic success, the Twilight Festival will be discontinued following the final event this September. The end of the festival comes after a two-year evaluation by the group that created it.
For 19 years, downtown Columbia has been home to the Twilight Festival every Thursday night in June and September. Originally started as a project of the Central Columbia Association to bring more people downtown, the event has become a strain on its organizers.
"It eats up a huge amount of resources, and the question became, ‘Is it valuable?'" said Carrie Gartner, executive director for the Columbia Special Business District and coordinator of the Twilight Festival.
The Special Business District is a city organization funded by a sales tax on businesses and properties located within The District, and it has only two staff members: Gartner and assistant director Erika Kubsch. The CCA is a separate, non-profit merchant association that is staffed by the same two District employees who volunteer their time to the organization.
Gartner and Kubsch have been the only two people charged with orchestrating the Twilight Festival.
"I think that was one of the big things," CCA Board President Kurt Mirtsching said. "(Twilight Festival) took the resources that could be better used elsewhere."
The $45,000 budget for the festival comes from merchant donations, grants and sponsorships, most of which were generated by Gartner and Kubsch. For the two women, their responsibilities to the SBD - such as beautification, business recruitment, economic development and historic preservation - take a back burner during festival months.
"We do have to pull back on other areas in order to make the festival happen," Gartner said.
Board members have been trying since 2007 to survey the more than 100 members of the CCA within The District to gauge how the association's board should vote on the future of the Twilight Festival, Mirtsching said. He said the group received back "only a fraction" of the written questionnaires it put out. They also conducted two town-hall style meetings where the participants expressed mixed opinions about keeping the festival going.
"Some folks - most bars and restaurants - did pretty decent business (during the festivals)," CCA board member Richard King said. "Most retail places were just so-so."
Specific data about economic impact of the Thursday night events were not presented at any of the monthly CCA board meetings, King said, but a lot of input was provided by board members who shared the results of many months of informal surveys from downtown businesses.
"Some of the shopkeepers saw their business go down a little bit, because (the crowds) would keep their regular customers away," Mirtsching said.
The final decision to discontinue the Twilight Festival was not entirely due to the economics, Gartner said; the influx of other events taking place downtown showed the CCA that "the event had outgrown its usefulness," King said. Gartner said at least 14 new events had been established downtown since the Twilight Festival was created in 1989, when very little was happening to encourage commerce in The District.
"What it boiled down to was downtown is a different place now than it was 19 years ago and there's a lot of other things going on," Mirtsching said. "It's not like downtown is going to dry up and blow away if we don't have Twilight Festival."