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City’s signature summer festival will take 2014 off while organizers try to regroup

There will be no da Vinci Days in Corvallis next summer, as organizers attempt to restructure and reimagine the annual arts and technology festival, which has struggled with declining ticket sales and dwindling sponsorships.

“The festival’s not done,” insisted Michael Dalton, the board chairman and acting executive director of da Vinci Days. “We’re going to suspend it for the summer and engage the community and try to reinvent it.”

A committee of 12 to 15 civic leaders, festival stakeholders and community members will be formed to do a thorough evaluation of da Vinci Days and offer recommendations for reviving the 25-year-old event.

Led by an unpaid facilitator, the group will brainstorm ideas, hold community forums, interview current and former board members and volunteers, and conduct surveys in an effort to reinvigorate the festival’s programming and business model, then report to the board of directors in the spring.

Part of the committee’s charge will be to gauge the level of ongoing public support for da Vinci Days, which has been a summertime fixture in Corvallis since 1988.

“This is a festival that’s been a big part of the community for the last 25 years,” said board member Steve Clark, Oregon State University’s vice president for marketing and development. “How can it be a big part of the community for the next 25 years?”

Dalton, accompanied by a contingent of board members that included Clark, issued a press release and announced the suspension decision publicly at Monday night’s Corvallis City Council meeting.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Ward 8 Councilor Biff Traber. “I can see why you are doing this, and I hope that the committee process will help reinvent da Vinci Days, and I urge you on.”

The three-day celebration of art, science and technology has been the community’s signature event, with a whimsical kinetic sculpture competition, electric vehicle races, sidewalk art contests, film fests, strolling entertainers and musical performances from the likes of Pink Martini, Bobby McFerrin and Little Feat.

But the festival has also suffered from a bit of an identity crisis, Dalton acknowledged.

“It has lots and lots of parts, which is a good thing — there’s something for everybody,” he said. “But do you get to the point where you offer too many things?”

Da Vinci Days still has a strong volunteer base, with about 1,400 people donating time to the event each year.

Both Dalton and Clark said the festival’s finances were in good shape, with a positive balance in the checking account. But da Vinci Days also has some unpaid debts.

According to the nonprofit’s 2011-12 tax return, the most recent available, last year the festival still owed $10,000 on a loan from the city of Corvallis and just under $31,000 on a loan from Wells Fargo Bank.

Asked if he thought da Vinci Days could survive a one-year hiatus to return in 2015, Dalton said that would depend on the public.

“I certainly hope so, but that’s to be determined,” he said. “It’s up to the community to say if it should return and in what form, and we’ll follow the wishes of the community.”

Declining revenues

Da Vinci Days got off the ground in 1988 with a commitment of $18,000 apiece from the city of Corvallis, Oregon State University and Hewlett-Packard Co. That support morphed over the years from cash to mainly staff time, donations of facility use and other forms of “in-kind” support.

As Dalton told a Gazette-Times reporter in July for an article on the festival’s 25th anniversary, “That’s really commendable, but you can’t pay the bills with in-kind.”

The festival’s financial position has been steadily eroding.

Ticket sales historically represent roughly half of the event’s income, but paid attendance has been on the wane, dropping from 20,000 in 2010 to 17,000 in 2011 and 12,870 in 2012. This year, after raising the age limit for free children’s tickets from 5 to 11, the paid attendance figure stabilized at 12,454.

Total revenues (including sponsorships, donations, ticket sales and concessions) topped $232,000 in 2009 but fell to $171,573 in 2012, according to tax filings. That number was up slightly this year to $172,940, Dalton noted.

“Our finances and diminishing sponsorships and the economy have all had an impact on us, as well as other nonprofits and organizations,” he said.

Dalton said the festival office would be closed and its one remaining employee, a part-time office assistant, laid off. In the meantime, the eight-member board of directors will continue to meet.

Former executive director Nicole Beachboard-Dodson resigned in February after a little over a year on the job, saying she needed to spend more time with her children. Dalton has served as interim director since then.

Da Vinci Days will continue to accept donations and will maintain its phone line and Internet presence while going through the reinvention process. The organization can be reached at 541-757-6363 or davinci@davinci-days.org. The website is www.davinci-days.org, and the mailing address is PO Box 1883, Corvallis, OR 97339.

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald