The Salmon Festival has, since its inception, been an extremely lucrative business opportunity for the Exploits region.
And those opportunities have only increased since the town partnered with promoters SRO Entertainment last year to obtain bigger crowd-drawing acts like Kiss and Aerosmith.
But some members of the business community are upset the concert is no longer called the Exploits Valley Salmon Festival Concert, but the Freshwater Suzuki Salmon Festival Concert.
The town and the promoter are being criticized by local businesses now that the area’s largest tourist attraction officially bears the name of a St. John’s car dealership.
Several businesspeople had approached SRO and the town with their concerns during the months since the name was changed to reflect Suzuki’s sponsorship. They wanted to know why local businesses were not contacted first for naming rights.
On Thursday, SRO Entertainment’s Meryl Stuart came to Grand Falls-Windsor to speak to the business community at a luncheon hosted by the Exploits Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Stuart explained how his company got involved with the Salmon Festival during a time when its popularity was waning, and decided that bringing in larger acts might be a viable solution.
But, he said, big acts cost big bucks, and those big bucks need to be paid before tickets even go on sale.
“The risk factor to do a show (like this) is huge,” said Stuart. “Because the population is spread out over such a large area, in order for the festival in Grand Falls-Windsor to be successful you can’t have mediocre bands. Someone who lives six hours away is not going to travel anywhere to see Trooper or April Wine. You need something that’s going to explode.”
Stuart said in order to ensure the concert is a continuing success, which will in turn benefit the local economy, Grand Falls-Windsor needs to see itself as the host town for a provincewide event.
“We need to convince people we’re doing this for the province of Newfoundland — from St. John’s to Port Aux Basques to St. Anthony.”
Stuart said part of that is opening up the festival for sponsors from coast to coast, which is why when Freshwater Suzuki made an offer for the naming rights, SRO quickly jumped on board.
Jason Thistle, owner of Grand Toyota in Grand Falls-Windsor, a dealership only metres away from where the concert will be held, was quick to grill Stuart on how they chose who would get the naming rights, and why local businesses were not contacted.
Thistle said he wouldn’t have been upset if the opportunity was presented but refused, but is bothered by the fact he wasn’t told about the option.
He said SRO and the town missed a great opportunity in not communicating with the Chamber of Commerce about sponsorship opportunities prior to making the decision.
Stuart responded by saying he’s not from the region, so the logic was to take the offer when it was proposed. He also said SRO did, in fact, contact some local businesses, mainly those that had supported the festival in the past.
He also said any interested party could have contacted him or the town directly.
“We didn’t know exactly where to reach,” said Stuart. “(In this region), we didn’t have anybody that wanted to take the name that would be willing to put out the kind of money that we felt that type of advertising would warrant. … If we missed someone, and someone is out there, then we apologize.”
Stuart said any business interested in sponsorship next year, large or small, is encouraged to contact him directly or through the town — as contacting every single businesses in the area is not practical.
“Our door is always open,” he said.
In an interview after the luncheon, Thistle said the town is more responsible than the promoter for the naming blunder, and said it should have been more diligent in communicating with local businesses about opportunities.
“I think the town was just so anxious to wash their hands of the festival and the concert (to) get away from that financial liability, that they just left a lot of the finer points out and, in the process, overlooked the business community and the naming rights,” said Thistle.
He added that Thursday’s meeting was more of a benefit to SRO than any other party, and expects a “bidding war” for naming rights next year.
“I don’t know if (Stuart) did anything for the members here today, but it certainly increased the value of his promotion,” said Thistle.
Although he didn’t attend Thursday’s event, Grand Falls-Windsor Mayor Al Hawkins responded to criticisms of the town’s involvement.
“We’ve been having the Salmon Festival here for the last 27 years. It’s not like it’s a total surprise that we’re having this event,” he said. “Up until last year we were losing money on this event, so we had to look for other opportunities. We’ve entered into a contract with SRO. Part of SRO’s responsibility is mitigating some of the risk, and part of that is looking for sponsorship.”
Hawkins added the town had even posted on its website that anyone interested in being a sponsor could get in contact and it would connect them with the appropriate parties.
“I think we’ve had 11 responses so far, and all 11 responses have been (from businesses) outside of Grand Falls-Windsor.”
Although the name of the Freshwater Suzuki Salmon Festival Concert is being contested, one thing isn’t — the immense benefits of the concert to the local economy.
Scott Kenny, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said he’s pleased Stuart was able to come to town to speak with the business community, and that a connection is made for businesses interested in sponsoring next year.
“I think this concert is a tremendous thing, bringing 25,000 people will be a huge economic boost to the region and I think we should be extremely happy this Newfoundland event is happening here in Grand Falls-Windsor,” said Kenny.