As the president of the board of the Friends of the Moab Folk Festival, which collectively produces the festival, the Moab Folk Camp, and collaborates with four other local organizations to produce the Moab Free Concert Series, I’d like to respond to the March 15 article concerning petitioners seeking to mitigate event usage of Swanny Park. The MFCS, a volunteer-run and much-loved non-profit community event is in the crosshairs and I take issue with this for several reasons, namely the petitioners’ view on “public spaces” and their incomplete approach to solution-based communication.
My understanding of a “public space” is that it is real estate used for communal, common good and is equally accessible to all who make up “the public,” meaning: there is no private ownership. Swanny Kerby, a Moab local in the 1950s bequeathed the land to Grand County with the stipulation that it be used as a public park. This stipulation was maintained when the city took ownership in 1958. Since then, Swanny Park has been a central focal point of our community. Public space can also be defined in economic terms; it means a community resource supported by public works and tax dollars. Taxes paid by Moab residents fund the costs of our public works department and maintain park infrastructure. Current use of the park fulfills the intent upon which it was created; everyone in our community, as well as visitors enjoys it. Kids have birthday parties, families picnic, hipsters play Frisbee and slack-line, skaters skate, tired travelers recoup, and, yes, events are held there.
How do these events fit in to the “public good” and Mr. Kerby’s intent? It can be argued that these events benefit our community in tangible and significant ways; our community likes them, attends them and gains free access to arts and culture not readily accessible to many. Data from the arts festival, the car show and the MFCS indicate that locals represent between 40 and 50 percent of attendees. The performances and activities offered by the arts festival entertain countless Moab youth and adults, and the event’s Shakespearean plays are not available elsewhere in town. The car show is the major fundraising activity for the local Rotary Club and the HMK 5th grade Boston traveling classroom project. One hundred percent of the proceeds earned through the car show are funneled back into the community as support to the Free Health Clinic and high school scholarships.
The MFCS specifically seeks to touch the lives of those most unlikely to be able to afford live music performances. It takes place in tandem with the Moab Farmers’ Market (which saw a 200 percent increase in sales in July) and provides a place for all members of our community to enjoy music together. Event data also indicates that market attendance increased during the concerts, and customer demand for low-income food vouchers surpassed total seasonal supply by the end of July. Hundreds of hours of volunteer time and donations make these events possible; they represent an important community awareness and unifying force of “giving back public good” that frequently goes unrecognized. Moreover, it can hardly be argued that Swanny events dominate public access to the park. According to the city, event days at Swanny in 2017 totaled 49, 26 of which were Farmers' Market days.
Proactive, solution-oriented mindfulness is needed. My organization became aware of some of the Swanny Park neighborhood’s unhappiness not long after the end of the series. In response, we actively began adjusting our 2018 planning to mitigate the negative impact; we revised our hours to start and end earlier, we consulted with our sound engineer about volume, and we have shied away from booking groups with shrieking guitars. We were open in communicating these adjustments at our funding request meeting with the Moab Area Travel Council, as reported in both The Times-Independent and Moab Sun News. When the above-referenced petition came to our attention, our assistant director spoke with the folks spearheading this campaign to attempt to address their concerns. We offered to meet and discuss possible solutions.
Unfortunately, our invitation was not reciprocated. While submitting a petition is one way of addressing neighborhood concerns, it bypasses community discourse and breeds division.
Not one of us is immune to wanting some aspect of our community to be different. However, we all have a choice of how we deal with our frustrations. In response to the petition circulated, I would like the city — and our community — to consider some of the following questions: Should tax-paying citizens who do not live within the four-block radius of Swanny Park not have equal access to a public good that they support? Are park neighbors entitled to the “not-in-my-back-yard” (NIMBY) argument for a public park that has a history of serving the community? What is the cost-benefit of these events, and is their contribution to our community deserving of 49 days at Swanny? How can we be mindful of the concerns of the park neighborhood while honoring the greater fabric of our community?
In closing, my organization and I remain open to discussing these questions and the future of events at Swanny Park. In the meantime, I will continue to serve my community through the presentation of free music and art until I am convinced that it is the wrong thing to do.