By Maria Saporta
When Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed made the official announcement Thursday of the Midtown Festival of the Arts, it appeared that a significant shift was underway.
All indications at the press conference showed that the City of Atlanta is welcoming an arts festival rather than putting up obstacles to prevent it from happening.
Reed told organizers of the Midtown Festival that he was pleased to lend his support and encouragement to the community-led initiative. The annual debut of the festival will be Sept. 25 to 26. Peachtree Street will be closed between Fifth and 10th streets to make way for artists, performers and pedestrians.
“I’m glad to be here as a partner,” Reed said during the press conference at the new Loews Atlanta Hotel. “We get to boost an idea that’s not our own. Not every idea has to be an idea of the city. Once you have vetted it, made sure it’s safe, you have to get out of the way and get behind it.”
In the past decade, organizers of festivals and major events had experienced just the opposite from city officials. An onerous festival ordinance passed with a host of regulations that significantly increased the costs of putting on events.
Music Midtown was one example of a major festival that ended up going out of business because it was losing money, partly because of the city’s increased security and clean-up requirements for areas blocks away from the event.
Other festivals also found themselves fighting the city in trying to get permits well in advance of their events — a necessity for planning and for getting sponsors.
After the press conference, I asked Reed if he would seek to improve the festival ordinance.
“I don’t think the festival is as much a hindrance as having an administration wanting to facilitate having a successful festival,” Reed said. “We are action-oriented. We want to try new things. Fundamentally, a festival must be safe. Once our concerns regarding safety are met, we want to be supportive. Sometimes the city has to get out of the way.”
Leslie Johnson, president of the Midtown Festival of the Arts, said the effort has been underway for about two years. Today, the festival has secured $100,000 in sponsorships, including having Audi as the presenting sponsor.
Festival organizers did first encounter resistance at City Hall, according to City Councilman Kwanza Hall. “It was a difficult thing initially to break the paradigm,” Hall said, adding that the city “can raise the caliber” in the hosting of events.
Reed has written a letter on behalf of the festival, and he said that closing Peachtree Street would bring a little of Times Square to Atlanta by creating “an amazing human vista.”
Another significant player present at the press conference was Joe Bankoff, president of the Woodruff Arts Center. Festival organizers went to him early on, and he enthusiastically embraced the idea because it would bring more arts to Midtown.
“Great cities have great art,” Reed said. “Every time we see something that’s worthy, something that lifts the human spirit…, we need to embrace it. Midtown Atlanta is going to be the heart of the arts in Atlanta. I’m for you.”
Reed also said that because of the down economy, “Atlanta needs energy right now.” Introducing a new festival that’s free to public can help lift the spirits of Atlantans.
As Reed said: “These activities give the city a soul.”