Jazz Plus at crossroads
When Union Bank celebrated the opening of its new Sonoma branch in May of last year, CEO and jazz aficionado Masaaki Tanaka only half-jokingly told a crowd gathered in a Plaza party tent that the bank chose the town because of "the music and the wine."
At that time, the Index-Tribune editorialized that Jazz Plus is much more than a three-day party. The newspaper editorial called it a "a quintessential marketing tool broadcasting the message of Sonoma's unique appeal as both a special community and a good place to do business."
A year later, the festival's governing board in Aspen, Colo., is on the brink of a decision over whether it can find enough community financial support - a half-million dollars, to be precise - to continue the popular but unprofitable event, or whether it should simply pull the plug.
Among the issues being weighed in the balance is the question of how much tangible economic benefit the three-day festival bestows on local businesses and, by taxable extension, on the coffers of city government.
It's hard to come up with a concrete answer because no one has conducted the detailed - and expensive - survey required to produce reliable statistics. So the existing evidence remains anecdotal. But if you ask Bill Blum, general manager of 64-room MacArthur Place, Jazz Plus has been manna from heaven. When the festival shifted from Memorial Day weekend to the weekend before, Blum's business shot up 38 percent. "And that," he adds, "was at the highest room rate for any time of the year."
Blum believes the festival can be - needs to be - improved upon and views this year's line-up as one of the weaker programs. "I don't know if the entertainment needs to be bigger," he said, "but more unique. Making it a more uniquely Sonoma festival, doing more with the food vendors, would help."
Still, he says, "The fact that you can walk to it, and people say, 'Oh my God, look at this town.' They're walking into the tent with big-name entertainment and there are kids playing baseball on the field outside. You can't beat that. I definitely hope it stays."
Suzanne Brangham, local real estate developer and restaurateur, was a founding member of the Jazz Plus board and said the festival's benefits extend into areas "you can't put numbers on."
The festival's impact on school music programs, said Brangham, "has been tremendous." But she and other supporters of the festival think its value extends into the broader benefit of branding the town, giving Sonoma national cachet as a center of both wine and culture, providing further incentive to draw tourists to town to spend money. "I do believe in it," Brangham concluded, "and I would like to see some changes."
Like festival president and co-founder, Jim Horowitz, Brangham believes the success of Jazz Plus is "talent driven. "If you have exceptional talent, everybody would even stand" to watch it. "We don't have the talent base they have in Aspen."
The two annual concerts produced by Jazz Aspen-Snowmass - the parent nonprofit to Sonoma - are in their 20th year and have weathered similar crises, but they draw on a larger and richer community.
Steve Page, president and general manager of Infineon Raceway, has, he says, "an emotional attachment to the event. I introduced Jim (Horowitz) and his crew to the community. I think it's a wonderful resource for Sonoma ... No one in a town our size has that level of performers."
Page thinks the economic benefits are tangible, both short-term and long-term. "We've got a tourism-based economy. The festival fills rooms. It even drives strong business for (clothing store owner) Dan Eraldi. It builds long-term branding, it's an introduction for people who will be back, if not for the festival, then for Sonoma."
But not everyone offers such unqualified support. Sonoma City Councilmember Steve Barbose, who has regularly voted to extend city subsidies to the event, now says he is skeptical about the festival's stated need to raise $500,000 or close up shop.
"It's definitely not a viable way of fundraising for charity if they have to spend $500,000," to continue. And, Barbose, argued, "I think they have to find a way to make the thing more affordable. People complain to me that it's priced out of their range."
The challenge before the festival is to find more corporate sponsors to join with Union Bank, which has been behind the event from the beginning and this May contributed an additional $7,000 to buy school music instruments. That isn't likely to change if the festival continues. The bank is committed to two more years and, according to Tom Taggart, Union Bank's director of corporate communications, "We are a long-time supporter of Sonoma Jazz Plus because of our deep commitment to local schools and to the community. The Sonoma Jazz Plus staff have been wonderful to partner with and we enjoy working with their team. We feel Sonoma Jazz Plus adds value to the community of Sonoma and to our business."
But will others step forward to share Union Bank's support? Will Horowitz and crew find their $500,000.
"There's no question it can be done," said Page, who has helped raise close to $4 million through Infineon's Speedway Children's Charities. "It's just a question of getting the right people in the right numbers together ... I'd make it 60-40 odds," said Page.
For Darius Anderson, Sonoma-based entrepreneur and philanthropist, and Jazz Aspen-Snowmass board member who chairs the Sonoma event, fundraising is second nature. Anderson has already raised more than $150,000 for Jazz Plus and he isn't daunted by the dollars.
"It takes a village," Anderson said. "It really takes 20 people sitting in the same room and saying they are willing to make this work."