Revenge of the Heritage Festival
The Kings, the county and the return of the little festival that could
The Sacramento Kings nearly destroyed the Sacramento Heritage Festival.
On Sunday, June 2, 2002, the Kings played the biggest game in franchise history, game seven of the Western Conference Finals at Arco Arena against the Los Angeles Lakers, with the winner earning a berth in the NBA Finals. On that June day, the Sacramento Heritage Festival began its second day at Gibson Ranch.
The Heritage Festival was a two-day music event, with concerts featuring both local bands and nationally known acts. It was produced and promoted by a public-benefit organization dedicated to preserving American roots music, and proceeds helped fund music programs in local schools. The festival featured a wide array of music, from blues to zydeco and from gospel to hip-hop, from both across the nation and Sacramento’s backyard. It also had craft booths and a variety of ethnic-food booths—all provided with the help of a dedicated, hardworking volunteer staff. Attendance, steadily increasing since the festival’s 1994 beginning, peaked on Saturday in 2002 with 6,200 people attending. But when Pharoah Sanders, perhaps the greatest living jazz saxophone player, stepped out onstage Sunday afternoon, only the early-summer heat greeted him.
On that day, Kings fans chose sports over music, and Mike Balma, who had nursed the Heritage Festival to modest success since its inception, watched his beloved festival crumble. “Our Sunday attendance was down over 2,000—and of the people who did come, they left early [to watch the Kings],” said Balma. “It was embarrassing.” And that was the last Sacramento heard of the Heritage Festival for two years. The festival needed a new budget and a little help.
The Heritage Festival returns this year to River Walk Park in Yolo County, after a bitter struggle between Balma and Sacramento County.
Balma is an imposing figure; his head nearly touches the ceiling of his converted garage-office in Sacramento, where he granted an interview to SN&R. But he’s a soft-spoken giant, and he’s passionate about his festival, about people and about music. Photographs and paintings of blues and gospel artists express his love for music and offer insight into his nonprofit organization, the Sacramento Heritage Festival. As Balma answered a few questions about the festival’s history, he dropped a CD—the W.D. Gospel Singers—into a player. He stopped twice in mid-sentence to listen to the rich vocal harmonies. “This one’s a burner,” he said. “They build it up until it explodes into this big, fiery …” He trailed off, his hands lifted over his head and his arms churning as he was swept away by the music.
Balma has supported the festival with his own money—he is a self-employed computer consultant—and he has reached out over the years to the community he serves, building a fan base and a core of committed volunteers. Essentially, Balma wants what many artists and art patrons want for their community: greater access and exposure to artistic diversity. The festival itself represents a unique atmosphere many consider to be vital to a city’s artistic diversity.
But after the 2002 Kings debacle, the festival was in trouble. As the Kings lost to the Lakers, the Heritage Festival lost $25,000. A nonprofit organization, the festival relies mostly on grants and donations for survival, and the 2002 loss presented a tremendous challenge. Balma needed to reduce costs to keep the Heritage Festival alive.
The County of Sacramento Department of Regional Parks, Recreation and Open Space was, according to him, “collecting probably close to $17,000 in fees for the two days” of the Heritage Festival. But Balma’s plan to cut costs by reducing the amount paid in standard park fees didn’t suit the county, which was undergoing a budget crisis of its own at the time.
During a January 2003 meeting with the department, the Heritage Festival requested a reduction in fees of $3,400. It took more than a month for the county to respond, and when Balma did get its letter, the county stated that the $3,400 fee reduction had been denied. The county also requested increased vehicle-entrance fees for the Heritage Festival.
Balma was irate. He claimed that the county’s plan would “double the fees.” He accused the county parks administration of planning to make up the parks’ budget deficit at the expense of the struggling festival.
After Balma sent two more letters to county parks officials in March 2003 without receiving a response, he put the 2003 Heritage Festival on hold prior to any promotion or booking.
Balma consistently has maintained that the county is more interested in making money than in helping the Heritage Festival present a valuable cultural event for the people of Sacramento. His sensitivity and commitment to providing a public service—and his derision for government bureaucracy—began to consume him. “Man, this ain’t right, what they’re doing to us,” said Balma. He added that Gibson Ranch is a county park for use by the people. “This is a community event. Why are they looking at us to solve their budget problems? It’s not our fault. That park’s gonna be there whether we’re there or not. We don’t really affect their operation one bit.” But with revenue of $17,000, the county surely would miss the Heritage Festival.
Balma began a letter-writing campaign to the department’s director, Ron Suter, asking supporters and fans of the Heritage Festival to voice their opinion. Suter responded to the campaign with a form letter that stated that the parks department wanted “to keep event fees the same,” and, in a subsequent e-mail, he told Heritage Festival supporters that Balma’s letters present “false information.”
Balma’s anger grew. “This [e-mail] basically said we’re lying. … The words they used are just incredible,” said Balma. “They make us look like jerks. But we’re the only ones telling the truth.” Again, Balma referred to the vehicle-entry fees as the source of his ire.
In September 2003, when the two sides met again, “The first thing the county says is ‘We screwed up,’” claimed Balma. His understanding was that the county had sent the letter requesting the higher rates in error—that it had been intended as “a rough draft.” That didn’t placate him. “I’m thinking, ‘You’re just discovering this now, nine months later?’”
Deputy Director of Regional Parks Jill Ritzman told SN&R that, of the approximately $17,000 the county makes from the Heritage Festival, none of it is profit. “It all goes back into the park,” she said in a phone interview.
While Ritzman admitted to a mistake by parks staff in the first letter Balma received, she insisted that the county never intended to increase fees for the Heritage Festival. The county apologized to Balma when the error turned up, according to her. “There were mistakes on both sides,” she said.
Indeed there were. Balma’s passionate reaction to the county’s error created the rift between him and county officials.
At the heart of the problem is Balma’s insistence that the festival needed a break from the county. But an increased vehicle-entrance fee wouldn’t increase revenue for the Heritage Festival; rather, it would increase the public’s fee to enter the park.
Balma wanted more concessions from the county. His proposals to resolve the situation involved reduced fees for the festival as well as a public apology. But, according to him, Suter “scratched our proposals out and said, ‘Here’s what you’re going to take,’” circling that the Heritage Festival would be responsible for park cleanup and that a vehicle-entrance fee of $6 (with $5 going to the county and $1 to the Heritage Festival) would be imposed.
Fed up with his negotiations with Sacramento County, Balma then began negotiations to move the festival to Elk Grove Park, only to find that Sacramento County had reserved the site he wanted. Balma remains convinced that the county was attempting to sabotage the festival, although, according to Zach Jones, recreation supervisor for Elk Grove parks, Balma hadn’t made a formal reservation and had asked that Sacramento County not be told of his plans. “We talked about having the festival at our park,” said Jones, “but we never signed a contract.” Without a contract, Sacramento County was unaware that the Heritage Festival—or anyone else—had tried to reserve the sites.
Balma finally has found a new home for the Heritage Festival, and he cited less bureaucracy as a main reason for moving the festival to Yolo County. Chip Conrad, a local musician and businessman, said that the Heritage Festival represents “a wonderful blending of local and international music. I’ve missed it.” He added, “Because of the cross section of music variety, I was exposed to music fans you would not normally see.”
The arts—especially local arts—need public support. Otherwise, they suffer a fate worse than obscurity: extinction. That’s a fate Balma so far has managed to avert for the Sacramento Heritage Festival, which goes on Saturday and Sunday, June 4 and 5, in West Sacramento. Among the many featured acts on the festival’s four stages are grunge rockers Everclear, local favorite bluesman Jackie Greene, soul from Lydia Pense & Cold Blood and hip-hop from Lyrics Born. It’s a mix that reflects the diversity of music Balma so treasures.
Advance tickets are available at a reduced cost of $10 per day; admission at the gate will be $15. For full details about the festival, as well as a schedule, call (916) 481-2583 or go to www.sacheritagefest.com.
And parking, available in the Raley Field lot, will cost $6 per day. Ironically, that’s what Sacramento County wanted to charge.