By Jeff Fox

The Independence Chamber of Commerce is taking a detailed look at Santa-Cali-Gon Days, along with other chamber functions, in an attempt to control costs and ensure the long-term viability of the popular Labor Day weekend festival.

“It went well this year,” said chamber President and CEO Franklin “Kim” Kimbrough. “I don’t think your festival-goers saw any significant changes.”

In May, the chamber brought in Independence resident Lois McDonald, who has long been active in the community, to coordinate the 2013 festival. She is staying on in that role. In an extensive interview with The Examiner, Kimbrough and McDonald said the festival went well this year but has not consistently made money for some time. They said the chamber needs to limit its exposure to rising costs.

“This hasn’t happened in one year,” Kimbrough said.

Revenues are steady, and the chamber stands by its figure of about 225,000 people attending each year, but costs have continued to climb, and the chamber is looking to get a handle on those.

“Contract negotiation going forward is going to be a very significant part of this,” McDonald said.

That’s part of the top-to-bottom look that a chamber committee is making, with results expected this month.

“I think it’s really the creation of a business model.” McDonald said.

Kimbrough came on board at the chamber a little more than a year ago, a few weeks after Santa-Cali-Gon, and was told by his board that the chamber needed changes. He said early this year the festival needs to be on solid financial footing to make sure it’s around for the long term. The festival relies on a large cadre of return volunteers, some of whom quit early this year as changes were being contemplated, but Kimbrough said almost all of them have come back.

In May, McDonald was hired, putting in long days to get through the extensive checklist of items needed to stage the four-day event. In the midst of that, she worked in some new things, including a car show and moving the popular William Chrisman vs. Truman High School volleyball game to a fairly spacious site at Kansas and Main. She also added a fourth entertainment stage, this one with local acts.

“It was packed,” Kimbrough said. “It really was packed every single time I went by.”

Overall, there were the same number of vendors, about 450, as in 2012, McDonald said, at a total of 776 booth spaces, up from 713. But the festival was more spread out – that might be reviewed in the future – and even the wider streets on Lexington and Maple could have added to the perception that Square just wasn’t as crowded this year, she said.

“... I do understand the appearance here was, ‘what’s going on?’” she said.

McDonald said she considers the non-profits that sell food to raise, in some cases, all the money they need for the year, to be the heart and soul of event. She and Kimbrough said they don’t ever see big changes to essential parts of the festival – the shows, the crafts, the food. But McDonald also said the aim is to have something for everyone and that new ideas are needed, too.

“You can’t do the exact same thing every year, because if you do, it becomes stale,” Kimbrough said.

McDonald and Kimbrough also acknowledged some grumbling from vendors. Some of that, they said, is inevitable, but McDonald said most of the out-of-town vendors signed for next year before they left on Labor Day. McDonald met with the non-profits three weeks ago, “and we discussed all concerns,” she said, adding that she’s confident that substantially all of them will be back in 2014. Overall, she said, the chamber is on pace with its usual number of vendors signing up and paying for next year.

Every year brings its own challenges. This year, the first two days were very hot – “Friday (attendance) was nowhere near as good as Saturday,” Kimbrough said – and then on Sunday morning a microburst hit the Square. McDonald said 19 vendors had damage but all got open within two hours.

Last year it was a different story. The remnants of Hurricane Isaac rolled through, dumping more than 5 inches of rain in about 30 hours, forcing a cancellation of events Friday – that had never happened before – and a significant delay in starting up Saturday. (Country singer Joe Diffe, whose show was washed out, did come back this year and said he loved it.)

The chamber had hoped this year to make up for the deficit from 2012, but Kimbrough said that didn’t quite happen.

One thing that got cut at the last minute this year – again, a cost concern – was a scientific measuring, hour by hour, of attendance. That’s something the chamber will find a way to do in the future, Kimbrough said. The event draws vendors from as far off as Georgia and Texas, meaning they are bypassing other festivals not as far from home, so the chamber needs to be able to demonstrate numbers to vendors and tell the community of the event’s overall impact.

“Because we think this is a huge economic impact, but we can’t quantify it,” Kimbrough said.