Franklin City Council pursues Juneteenth Cultural Celebration

Published 6:00 pm Tuesday, November 8, 2022

The Franklin City Council voted 5-1 on Oct. 24 to adopt a resolution to partner with a 501(c)(3) to pursue the implementation of a Juneteenth Cultural Celebration and have the assistance of city staff to solicit the cooperation of the seven cities of Hampton Roads.

Gregory McLemore

Ward 2 Councilman Ray Smith cast the lone dissenting vote, noting that he was willing to help put the event together but just did not think it was the right time to vote “yes” without more discussion and information. Mayor Frank M. Rabil was not present at the meeting.

Leading up to the vote, Ward 3 Councilman Gregory McLemore gave a presentation on his plan for the celebration, and he then answered questions posed by other council members.

“I did a festival here in 2017, and it gave me some experience,” McLemore said, “and also seeing the success of the (Riverfront) Soul Festival, I was brainstorming how we can make some money for the city without it coming from our citizens … so that we can use it to keep our taxes low and our fees low and pay on this debt that we owe.”

OVERVIEW OF JUNETEENTH CELEBRATION

McLemore said his plan is to partner with a nonprofit organization for a two- or three-day spectacular festival-type event designed to attract people, particularly African Americans, to visit Franklin and spend money in the local economy to which they otherwise would never have a reason to contribute.

He said the event would be designed to generate new revenue for the city to reduce taxes and utilities that are currently its only source of revenue. 

“This concept was also conceived as a method to help with our $25 million debt service,” he said.

“The event consists of a major parade with college and high school marching bands with a celebrity grand marshal or the governor,” he said. “If the city chooses to get on board, we’ll reach out to the state promoting the Virginia Mardi Gras.”

He said the celebration will take place at four parks, with events happening almost simultaneously.

“There’ll be a marching band competition for cash prizes,” he said. “We want to have three national recording artists, national celebrity events — Family Feud and Hollywood Squares.”

He said there will be Norfolk and Richmond live bands, celebrity impersonators, a professional fashion show, Black history plays and other family friendly events.

PURPOSE OF THE CELEBRATION

“The purpose is to take advantage of tourism opportunities for Franklin, to generate revenue for the city by creating a national tourist destination event, to take advantage of a newly created national holiday and to capitalize on Franklin’s association with slavery and emancipation with the insurrection of Nat Turner, which is known worldwide, as is the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, both occurring here in our general region, within seven miles,” McLemore said.

GOAL OF THE CELEBRATION

“The goal is to create an event so large and spectacular that people from all over the country will come to know Franklin, Virginia, as the home of the Juneteenth Cultural Celebration,” McLemore said. “No other city in America has put its stamp on this national holiday yet.”

He noted that the goal is to create a tourist event with sustainability for tourism like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Daytona Beach Spring Break and the Myrtle Beach Bikers Rally. He said all of these events generate millions for those localities’ coffers.

BENEFIT OF CELEBRATION TO FRANKLIN

“In time, such event has the potential to generate millions of dollars for our city and its residents if done correctly and consistently over a five-year period,” McLemore said. “This endeavor requires a minimum investment on behalf of the city compared to the return on investment by being a partner with the unspecified yet 501(c)(3). We will attract thousands of potential new residents and tourists that currently don’t even know Franklin, Virginia, exists.”

REVENUE STREAM FOR THE CITY

“The first year the city will make thousands of dollars — which is actually hundreds of thousands of dollars — from both shared parking and vendor fees from out-of-town people and vendors,” McLemore said.

He stated the celebration would lead to increased revenue via the local sales tax and meal and lodging tax, but he added that this is revenue that will not materialize without the city partnering for this event with a 501(c)(3).

CITY’S RESPONSIBILITIES

The first responsibility that McLemore listed was providing support by resolution for the Juneteenth Cultural Celebration, giving him the authorization to solicit resolutions of support from the seven cities of Hampton Roads — Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach.

Franklin City Manager Amanda C. Jarratt, Franklin Director of Tourism Carson S. Blythe and possibly Franklin Department of Parks and Recreation Director Sammara C. Green would accompany McLemore in the solicitation effort.

“Simply meaning we would reach out to the other seven cities, and (say), ‘We are like your little brother in Franklin; we are part of Hampton Roads, but we’re like a suburb of Hampton Roads.’ And our citizens support their festivals all year long.”

He cited examples like the Virginia Beach Neptune Festival and the Norfolk Harbor Fest.

“And we’re asking for one weekend a month, just don’t throw any big events on that weekend and support us, send some of your people down to us.”

He then highlighted how the seven cities will benefit by doing this.

“We don’t have the hotel accommodations to accommodate the kind of crowds we’re trying to attract, so those people would be flying into Norfolk, Newport News, get in rooms in hotels in those cities,” he said. “So they would increase their lodging sales as well as rental car sales taxes, and the events will be timed in such a way that we’ll be finished by 11 o’clock, giving these people time to go back to their city that they were in, and those cities can make money off of their night lives, because we don’t have night life here in Franklin, and we don’t want to keep things going too late.”

The other city responsibilities McLemore listed were as follows:

  • Provide management staff to serve on planning committee and act as liaison with updates to council;
  • Provide traffic control and ask for county sheriff’s support;
  • Apply for and provide available grant funding through associated departments and agencies, i.e., tourism, Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc. and the recreation department;
  • Provide electric services for the vendors; and
  • Provide potential ancillary funding approved by council prior to commitment.

NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION’S RESPONSIBILITIES

McLemore listed these responsibilities as follows:

  • Organize volunteer event planning committee;
  • Secure funding through corporate and private agencies;
  • Solicit sponsors and vendors, book, coordinate all scheduled performers and participants and decide additional events;
  • Organize parade routes, vendor locations, create vendor taxing forms;
  • Coordinate parking locations, shuttle bus routes, secure permission identification and permits from vendors;
  • Secure event insurance;
  • Coordinate volunteer and paid staff for parking lots; and
  • Oversee celebrity transportation.

REVENUE PROJECTIONS BY MEETING THE GOAL FOR THE CITY

McLemore said the goal for a total number of vendors would be 200.

“Our fees would be a little higher,” he said. “I recommend that we have a $250 per space vendor fee, and that’s for nonelectric. Electric would be an additional $25.”

If 50% of the vendors included electric, the 200 vendors could bring in $39,375.

“Then the food trucks would be a $350 vendor fee, creating an additional $17,500 if we meet goal,” he said.

The nonprofit’s percentage would be $12,500, but this would leave $44,375 in total revenue to the city.

McLemore said the city’s identified parking spaces are between a minimum of 579 available and a maximum of 10,579. At $25 per space, the minimum goal would yield $14,475, and the maximum goal would yield $264,475.

Allowing for $5 a space to go to the nonprofit, this would leave more than $250,000 in total revenue going to the city.

“Now that doesn’t include the food, lodging and the vendor sales tax that we were talking about,” McLemore said. “You’ve got a vendor out there, he paid $250, but he ends up selling $800 worth of merchandise. We get a piece of that $800 — sales tax.

“So in conclusion, the city, with very little general fund revenue investment, stands to potentially earn close to a half million dollars to add to our general fund accounting by getting behind this investment in developing an annual, national tourist event,” he said.

He emphasized that the event is going to take place regardless of whether or not the city decides to be a partner in the endeavor.

“But we as a city need to pursue and capitalize on any new ways for economic development that are low-cost to the city,” he said. “There are many final details, like how much the city should charge for vendor sales tax, and there are many moving parts to this festival, and the city will be updated throughout the process until its conclusion.”

He noted that time is of the essence because the seven cities have their own tourism directors who may be looking to make money off the holiday as well.

QUESTIONS FROM THE COUNCIL

Wynndolyn H. Copeland

Ward 5 Councilwoman Wynndolyn H. Copeland asked for more details on the city’s responsibilities.

“We would provide electric to vendors who wanted to purchase electric,” McLemore said, “so we may have to get some cables to have some junction boxes or whatever so that these vendors can utilize electric, but I don’t have the exact figure of how much it costs for us to provide electric for those hours to a vendor truck.”

He emphasized that if the city were to invest in this equipment, it would set itself up for lower-cost editions of the celebration in future years because it would already have the equipment on hand.

Ward 1 Councilman Mark R. Kitchen asked McLemore about public safety concerns.

“We have a very strong and very professional police department,” Kitchen said. “The problem is, we’ve got the same number of officers we did 40 years ago. Do you think that our police department, aside from the services they provide every day, can handle a crowd this size?”

McLemore replied, “Part of the monies that we would get from grants and things like that would allow us to be able to use a part of that money for expenses to bring on private security to assist our police department so that our sheriff’s departments can come in to help us basically with traffic and hopefully we don’t have any incidents, but we would try to augment our police departments with private security so that we can have the event protected.”

“Private security isn’t cheap, as you know,” Kitchen said. “So if this comes to fruition, they’d coordinate with the police chief and his staff to be on the same page?”

“Yeah,” McLemore said. “And we would have an ongoing monthly update from the city staff to council, and I would recuse myself from any votes that would require any more money, but the city would be looking to be behind it any way we could. We’re not trying to break the bank. We’re trying to use just grant money. There are (American Rescue Plan Act) ARPA grants available that will help us.”

He said that FSEDI President and CEO Karl T. Heck also told him about a state tourism grant that could be available as the celebration would be branded as Virginia Mardi Gras.

Mark R. Kitchen

Kitchen next asked about McLemore’s plan for parking.

McLemore said the minimum number of spaces he mentioned, 579, did not include the airport and also leaves out other areas of parking that could be available.

“We’ve got tons of parking, and that’s where we’re looking to make our money, because what does it cost us to park somebody?” he said. “No overhead, except for the parking attendants, people who would be collecting money, and a security guard to just make sure people’s cars are secure during the event. I would be coming back to the council with more breakdown for expenditures and what the 501(c)(3) is going to look to contribute to the expenditures.”

McLemore later expanded on how individual citizens in Franklin can make money off of parking during the celebration.

“Anybody who has ever been to an NFL game or a college football game, you’ve seen how parking is,” he said. “It’s anywhere you can park your car, and people literally make money by allowing people to park in their yard — $25, $30 to park in their yard, the closer they can get to the event. So I don’t see why we would restrict our citizens from being able to do the same thing.”

Kitchen asked McLemore what he plans to do about alcohol sales, noting that one rowdy party can turn the celebration into a bad situation.

“Excellent question,” McLemore said. “My preliminary opinion on that — we should have designated alcohol areas with bands that people can wear, kind of like we do for We Be Jammin’. So alcohol would be allowed in designated areas to secure that it wasn’t available to minors, and it would only be in specific, controlled-area environments.”

McLemore noted that the council would have the opportunity to share its concerns on alcohol during the planning process.

“If we had to push for no alcohol, it’s better for us to get that parking money and that tax money,” he said, “but the alcohol is something that every other festival has, and it also limits us from the potential participation of such rich sponsors as Coors and Budweiser, people like that, because they’re the ones who are actually going to come to the table with the money to sponsor this event.”

Ward 6 Councilman and Vice Mayor Robert “Bobby” Cutchins said, “There’s a lot to it. You’re going to have to get a committee and get a whole lot of stuff planned.”

Linwood Johnson

Ward 4 Councilman Dr. Linwood Johnson echoed McLemore’s presentation when he highlighted how no other city has locked into an event like this, and Johnson advocated for acting quickly to allow Franklin to secure it.

“Talking with some of the mayors — I just talk with them off the cuff — they would be interested in something of that nature because it brings to their city’s revenue also,” Johnson said.

He also pointed to the importance of branding for locality.

“I think Franklin needs a brand, something that we can be known for other than peanuts, wood, etc.,” he said, though he noted there is nothing wrong with those things. 

He went on to highlight how the Juneteenth holiday and availability of state money and willing corporations creates a unique opportunity that could be ongoing once secured.

Copeland asked McLemore what the time frame would be for a day’s events during the celebration, and he said, generally speaking, it would be 12:30-11 p.m.

Robert “Bobby” Cutchins

Cutchins asked if a party were to get out of hand during the celebration and people were looking to sue, who would be liable between the 501(c)(3) and the city?

“That would be a big question,” he said. “I would be pro doing this (event), but there’s a lot of logistics that we’ve got to look at.”

McLemore restated the motion he was looking for, noting that he is requesting action for the council to vote for a resolution to partner with a 501(c)(3).

“But you don’t know who the 501(c)(3),” Cutchins interjected, “so how is council going to know that they want to partner with the 501(c)(3) is what I’m saying. That is just advice.”

“OK,” McLemore said. “Well there are a couple that are already established, and I’m actually in the process of trying to establish one whose sole purpose is to encourage education around the Juneteenth event, so we may have a couple of 501(c)(3)s.

“But do keep in mind, the event will probably go on,” he continued. “The park’s already reserved, and we don’t want to end up with somebody coming to us — the 501(c)(3) or whatever — saying, ‘Well, we just want to rent your space.’”

Johnson made the motion to move forward with the Juneteenth Cultural Celebration, and Copeland seconded the motion.

Ray Smith

Ward 2 Councilman Ray Smith commended McLemore for putting together the presentation in such a short period of time.

“But after saying that, I’ve probably put on as many festivals in the city as anyone has, and the complications of doing this is many, many fold, and I don’t think we should have a motion to deal with someone we don’t know who we’re dealing with, i.e. the 501(c)(3),” he said. “I’m not sure if 501(c)(3)’s can share revenue between themselves for an event like this, and I think there’s more questions than there is answers, and for that reason, I’m willing to work with putting this together, but I don’t think tonight is the right time to do this without more discussion and more information.”

Johnson emphasized how planning for the event will be a process and that the council can back out at any time if it deems it appropriate.