This is the first of a two-part series examining the changes to the Celebrate Ontario program. Part two can be read here.
Since it was announced in early June that many major events in Hamilton and beyond would not receive funding from provincial funding program Celebrate Ontario, organizers and audiences have been reeling. Supercrawl, Festival of Friends, Dundas Buskerfest and FrancoFest all saw funding cut or eliminated, while other festivals across the province were negatively impacted as well.
While the major financial gap that all of these organizations is now facing has been widely discussed, the changes (and lack thereof) to the Celebrate Ontario program which caused this gap hasn’t. In this article, the first of two parts, we’ll take a look at the recent changes to the Celebrate Ontario program under the current government and how this put a number of organizations at a disadvantage. The second article will focus on the instability of government funding programs that are aimed at summer events, but also frequently put the organizations (and other stakeholders) at a disadvantage.
Hamilton organizations have been quoted in news media as stating that they’ve received funding from the Celebrate Ontario program annually, so it was a shock to not receive it this year. While this may be true, it is important to note that funding from the Celebrate Ontario program is not guaranteed year over year. Each year, every organization or event interested in funding has to apply utilizing the same application. If they are successful and receive funding, they are required to complete a final report at the end of their event that tracks their results with the targets related to their request in the application. In order to be eligible to apply for the subsequent year, the final report must be submitted and received; this can be tricky when these deadlines are weeks apart, and even trickier (although not impossible) if an organization is unable to submit an item (such as audited financial statements) due to its internal structure.
Although some organizations have received funding continuously for a number of years, there is no guarantee of funding from year to year- it is based on the other applicants, the strength of an application compared to the other applications received, and the amount of funding available. This is problematic for many organizations, particularly those that receive funding for the same event year after year, as it means that no event is able to rely on a continuous source of funding. However, the lack of commitment on behalf of the government program is meant to give every event an equal opportunity in the funding process, encourage long-standing events to find other ways to keep their programs sustainable long-term, and make room for new events and opportunities to be funded. It is worth noting that a number of Hamilton festivals and events received 2019 Celebrate Ontario funding, including some that have received funding in previous years.
Under the current government, a review of the Celebrate Ontario program took place, resulting in overall cuts to the program (the exact amount is unclear, but it is estimated to be at least $3 million and potentially as high as $7 million), and the criteria and application process changed significantly. Applicants were asked to apply to one of two categories; Tourism events and “Blockbuster” events, which are specific to “bidding and hosting costs related to major one-time events or infrequently recurring events that do not recur annually in Ontario and have cash operating expenses of at least $1 million.” Unlike Tourism Events, Blockbuster applications can be submitted on an ongoing basis, so it is not yet known what the total spend on this stream will be for this fiscal year.
In addition to categorizing events (previously, there was just one stream in the program), another major change was to the focus of the application. Previously, events were asked to request funding for “program enhancements”- programming or items outside of the “core” event that would attract tourists from certain cachement areas. In the 2019 intake, organizations were asked repeatedly to evaluate the economic impact of their event- in short, how many tourism dollars would be spent in their local community around their event. This question was asked in multiple ways, and it can be assumed from the application that the government is particularly interested in increasing their revenue from the hotel tax, as well as income from tourism sources- but the application was no longer focused on the event, as it was in past years. As a result, the funding structure and evaluation rubric changed for the program; this was reviewed with event organizers who participated in one of several online workshops about changes to the program in late 2018.
Like many changes under the current government, it does not appear as though the changes to the Celebrate Ontario program, or other changes to the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport were made with any input from the sector or its stakeholders. Had proper consultation been done with long-time recipients of the program (such as Supercrawl, Festival of Friends, Dundas Buskerfest, FrancoFest or many other organizations across the province), they and any other organization who saw reduced or eliminated funding may have been better prepared for the results of this year’s program.