©Brett Delmage, 2010
The Ottawa Jazz Festival may only be able to use part of Confederation Park in 2018, or none of the park at all. ©Brett Delmage, 2010

With a major excavation planned under its usual home in Confederation Park, next summer's Ottawa Jazz Festival is still in flux.

At the festival's annual general meeting on November 30, executive producer Catherine O'Grady said that she was currently in negotiations with the National Capital Commission (NCC) and the City of Ottawa about the festival's 2018 location. She said she expected to have an answer by Christmas.

Major's Hill Park is not available at the end of June, she said; it's booked for an indigenous music, theatre, and dance festival. Nor is Lansdowne Park: the Escapade Festival will be there at that time. And “we don't fit in any of the other parks. ... So we have very few options.”

In his written report to the AGM, festival president John Freamo said that the festival “will have to adapt [in 2018] as part of Confederation Park will be unavailable due to a large infrastructure project.” But when asked at the meeting what parts of Confederation Park would be available, he said they could not talk about that yet, because the NCC was still working on the details of the project.

“I've had many many meetings with the NCC and the city and the construction company,” O'Grady said. “We just don't know exactly what part of the park and Festival Plaza we will be allowed to use yet. That's the last piece of the puzzle that has to be worked out. At the moment, we know we'll be somewhere.”

Freamo said this uncertainty was affecting the operational planning for the summer festival, which is “already well underway. We are really, really good at setting up our festival in the configuration that it's been the last few years. It's been relatively the same. Every year we do it, we get a little bit better and we know the ins and outs of how our stages go and where things fit. And so any time that we're forced to change that or adapt that is just incredibly challenging for the festival staff.”

The infrastructure project is the city's Combined Sewage Storage Tunnel, which is designed to reduce sewage overflows into the Ottawa River after heavy rain. A map of the 6.2 km-long tunnel shows the east-west section going directly under the northern half of Confederation Park, parallel to the Mackenzie King Bridge, and then turning to go diagonally across the Rideau Canal, right under where the festival's main stage is normally located. Construction began last summer starting downtown at Kent Street and going eastward to end up in New Edinburgh. It will continue until late 2019.

The tunnel will be bored underground, 10 to 31 metres below the surface, but the city says that tunnel “shafts or access points” will be constructed along its length, to be “located on publicly owned land”. The project map shows a “Rideau Canal Interceptor Diversion/Drop” (site 3a) in Confederation Park. Freamo said there would be a tunnel “staging area” within the park.

The digging will cause “some vibrations due to construction activities in the area located adjacent to the tunnel boring machine,” the city says, and “the contractor is likely to accelerate the tunnel boring work outside of regular construction hours”.

Finding a location for its outdoor concerts is only one of the problems the festival anticipates for 2018. Freamo said that increasing programming costs and the Canadian/US exchange rate “continue to pose challenges”. However, he noted that the festival had enough resilience to survive a more-than-usually difficult 2017.

2017 was a "a tricky year"

“It was a tricky year. It was a very scary year,” O'Grady said. “Each and every day [during the 2017 summer festival], we featured rain. And not just small rain, but torrential rain.”

Box office receipts were down by 23% from 2016 ($664,886 compared to $867,403). The rain particularly reduced single ticket sales, said festival treasurer Jean Vanderzon, who also volunteers in the box office during the festival. “Catherine and I were bemoaning the lack of people in the park. We just weren't getting the walk-up trade that we had had in other years.”

Another factor decreasing attendance was “going toe to toe with the innumerable events” for the Canada 150 celebrations, Freamo said. “It was an unprecedented level of competition in terms of cultural programming and concerts.”

The National Arts Centre Fourth Stage was again unavailable because it was being rebuilt, and the Discovery series was moved this year from the NAC Back Stage to La Nouvelle Scène, a much longer (17-minute) walk from Confederation Park. The Fourth Stage is “a crucial venue for some of our straight-up jazz programming”, Freamo said, and that programming is “a favourite of a lot of our long-time patrons and pass holders. So I think that the unavailability of that stage and the changes that that made in our programming probably had an effect on pass sales.”

He did not mention programming choices, including non-jazz concerts on the main stage, as a factor in ticket or pass sales, although respondents in OttawaJazzScene.ca's  2017 Ottawa Jazz Festival Favourites Poll did note that as a consistent issue.

But a small surplus after all

But, despite these problems, the festival unexpectedly showed a small ($30,390) surplus this year. “The biggest and most pleasant surprise we got this year, after a soggy year, was to find out that we actually had a small profit,” Vanderzon said.

What saved them was almost $1 million in government grants, including some specific to Canada 150 and some provincial government grants for which the festival is only eligible on certain years. That grant revenue was a 42% increase over 2016, although only slightly more than in 2015. The festival also received 40% more in corporate sponsorship compared to 2016 (the VIP tent was full every night, Vanderzon said), and 7% more in sponsor donated services.

Vanderzon noted that some grants the festival received this year would not be available for 2018.

Ticket sales for the winter edition of the festival were good, she said. They totaled $68,027 for 2017, down 10% from 2015 and similar to 2014. [The box office results for 2016 weren't broken down between the summer and winter festivals.] The festival's winter benefit concert and auction was also more successful than in recent years.

Programing costs were only up 1.5% from 2016, after being chopped by one-third last year compared to 2015.  Vanderzon said that was “a deliberate budgeting decision by the board to say that 2017 is going to be a tough year, with a big fight for all those people. We all only have so much money to spend on entertainment, so let's make sure we control our response and don't go too crazy. So, by doing that, we managed to stay out of debt.”

Wages and contract services increased by almost 14%. Vanderzon said the festival faced fierce competition this year for government wage subsidy programs and had to hire more people outside those programs than in the past.

The hour-long meeting was held during a sleet storm, with several board members entering noticeably late because of the bad weather and the resulting traffic tie-ups. Despite that, the attendance was noticeably better than 2016, with more than 25 volunteers plus board and staff members present. There were many detailed questions from the floor about the festival and its finances.

The festival board had a larger turnover than usual this year, with several long-term members retiring. Continuing on the board are Freamo, Vanderzon, Dan Gamble, Gavin McLintock, Poppy Vineberg, and John Cvetan. Elected by acclamation were five first-time board members: lawyer Yael Wexler, federal government policy analyst Oren Howlett, teacher Mark Dregas, accountant Ira Abrams, and journalist Doug Fischer. Fischer is retired from the Ottawa Citizen, where he wrote regularly about jazz. He told the meeting that “I saw it from the outside, and now I want to embed myself inside.”

More Ottawa Jazz Festival AGM news: Winter Jazz Festival lineup revealed

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