Last month's 52nd Kentuck Festival of the Arts will likely be the iconic event's final year in its longtime home at Kentuck Park in Northport, its organizers announced Wednesday.

The Festival is the largest tourism draw to the city of Northport, brings up to 20,000 people to the area annually and generates an economic impact of several million dollars.

The shock announcement comes after several months of dialogue between Kentuck's leadership and Northport City Hall over funding the city provides to the Kentuck Art Center each year.

This isn't an unusual practice, and Northport allocated about $1 million in its Fiscal Year 2024 budgets to 20 other agencies such as the Tuscaloosa Metro Animal Shelter, the Tuscaloosa Public Library, Tuscaloosa County PARA and more.

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As the Thread first reported, though, the Kentuck Art Center was left out of those allotments - the city was ready to give Kentuck $68,000, but providing the funding was contingent on a new contract drafted by city administrator Glenda Webb, a copy of which the Thread obtained in September.

In a letter accompanying the nine-page contract, Webb said she hoped to "further discuss some long-term commitments from both the City and Kentuck so that each entity is more at ease with our long-standing partnership."

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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The contract asked Kentuck to commit to hosting the Festival within the City of Northport through Fiscal Year 2028. It also includes a seemingly boilerplate clause that "either party to this Agreement may, with or without cause, terminate this Agreement as to the first day of any month by giving the other party no less than thirty (30) days written notice thereof."

“While the city wanted a five-year agreement, it was unwilling to guarantee that we could continue to hold the festival at Kentuck Park for the duration of the agreement, and they were uncommunicative on how the construction would impact the festival during that time,” said Bobby Bragg president of the Kentuck board of directors. “The city wanted us to sign a contract with less funding and no certainty on where future festivals were to be held.”

It's past time to begin planning the 2024 Festival, and without certainty on the most important point - location - the board has instructed staff to begin finding a new home for the Festival.

“It is regrettable that a few city leaders have put us in this position,” Bragg said. “Kentuck and Northport have enjoyed a mutually beneficial partnership, but now we’re forced to look at relocating an event that has grown significantly over the years.”

These discussions come as Northport embarks on the serious work of transforming the area around Kentuck Park into the newly branded "Northport Shore" featuring River Run Park and its 9 new tournament-ready baseball and softball fields.

While the city's vision for enhancing travel ball opportunities by the river is getting clearer every day, the new master plans and designs have very little to say about the Festival and where it fits into Northport Shore.

“We are not happy about the idea of having to move the festival. Kentuck Park has been its home for so long it is part of the fabric of Northport," said Kentuck's executive director Amy Echols. "We are extremely grateful for the city employees, from Public Works to Public Safety, that we’ve formed relationships with over the years. They are like family to us. It is unfortunate we have been forced into this position, but if we want to have a Kentuck Festival of the Arts in 2024, we must start planning now."

Northport Responds

At 10:30 Wednesday night, the city distributed an unsigned statement responding to Kentuck's announcement.

The City of Northport was saddened to hear that the Board of the Kentuck Art Center has determined to seek a new home for the Kentuck Art Festival. Attorneys for both entities met the week before Thanksgiving in order to try and better understand the concerns of the other and to seek a resolution, and staff continued to discuss the Festival and its scheduling as late as the afternoon of Kentuck’s announcement.

 

Following an initial meeting at Kentuck Park on August 4, 2023 by multiple agencies in preparation for the 2023 Festival, a letter dated August 29, 2023 was sent to the Kentuck Board and Executive Director saying that the City was committed to continuing to work with Kentuck and holding the festival within the City of Northport and outlined several items which had been a matter of discussion. A response by email was received from Kentuck on August 31 in appreciation of the City’s efforts which was then followed by a letter dated September 5, 2023, where Kentuck was looking forward to our continued partnership.

On September 6, 2023, Northport City Administrator sent a proposed contract (based upon a previous funding contract between the entities) to Kentuck in an attempt to
formalize an agreement. This was then followed up by an email request for comments on the proposed contract dated September 14, 2023. On the same date, the attorney for Kentuck responded that there would be comments to the proposed contract language.

 

On September 21, 2023 an email was sent to Kentuck regarding the cost of in-kind services provided by the City of Northport (estimated at $77,126.43) as the Board was to meet later that day and potentially considering [sic] the proposed contract language. This email was acknowledged by the Executive Director as well as some of the board

members.

 

As festival preparations continued, communications continued between Kentuck and the City and new services were provided by the City (including a temporary WI-FI network) for the Festival and clean up of the dirt and haul road for the sports plex preliminary work. At the time of the Festival on October 14 and 15, 2023 the City of Northport provided numerous support staff and services to assist the Festival in keeping with the City’s long standing cooperation and desire to retain the Festival within Northport.

 

The City of Northport received numerous comments and markups to the proposed funding agreement on October 24, 2023, and attorneys for the City began reviewing the proposed markups which was followed by a meeting with Kentuck’s attorney and a board representative on November 16, 2023. With clarification of the issues as presented by Kentuck, attorneys for the City attempted to get additional information for Kentuck and continued to engage with Council members about the concerns of Kentuck up to, and including, November 28, 2023, with a pledge to get all issues resolved no
later than December 11, 2023.

 

The City of Northport has been the proud host of the Kentuck Festival for the last 52 years and the City Council has worked diligently in its commitment to coming to a resolution with Kentuck to retain the festival. It remains the hope of the City of Northport that Kentuck will continue to hold its festival at the traditional home of Kentuck Park within the City of Northport as we have never wavered from providing that space.

 

For more on this story as it develops, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

Top Stories from the Tuscaloosa Thread (11/20 - 11/27)

11 of the Top Stories published by the Tuscaloosa Thread during the week of November 20th, 2023. Happy Thanksgiving!

Gallery Credit: (Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)