WILMORE — The 2011 Ichthus Festival ended on a sobering note: Ichthus Ministries chief executive Mark Vermilion told the crowd that the festival site was going up for sale and that financial issues had put the 42-year-old event in jeopardy.
What festival organizers hoped, he said, was that a benevolent buyer would come forward and purchase the 110-acre site, relieving Ichthus of the mortgage and overhead costs of owning the property, and lease it back to Ichthus each year for the festival.
Today, the large yellow "for sale" signs he displayed onstage are nailed to the fence at the entrances to the festival site off U.S. 68 in Wilmore. Vermilion said there have been three or four discussions with potential buyers but no offers yet for the property, which has an asking price of $900,000.
"In the next six weeks, we're going to get into significant layoffs and consider not doing a 2012 festival if things don't change — if we don't have donors that step up and help us through this season of need, or if we don't sell the land," Vermilion said while sitting in the gazebo at the Wilmore city park that was built after Ichthus gave the city a portion of its festival property. "Our board of directors will meet on Sept. 12 and make some hard decisions. In the meantime, we have the opportunity to see who's really serious about helping us out."
The festival's financial situation is a result of a variety of factors, including a downturn in the economy and changes in the Christian concert and festival market. Since the festival moved from being held in late April to mid-June in 2006, each edition has lost money. That has made what once seemed like a great investment — a permanent site for the festival — into a crippling financial burden.
"There was a time when we purchased this land that the festival was making enough money to keep this overhead," Vermilion said. "Now it doesn't.
"We look at the land, and we have a mortgage payment and interest expense. We have maintenance, and we have insurance. If we didn't have that to pay each year, I can't see us losing money anymore."
Vermilion said he feels as if he's living between a world of how things are and how they could be. Unloading the property expenses could free the organization to develop programs including satellite festivals around the region comprising Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Vermilion said there has even been interest from Asbury University and Asbury Theological Seminary alumni in the Houston and Austin areas of Texas, where there is potential to launch another multiday Ichthus Festival.
But Ichthus has to survive this financial crisis, which has included slashing wages for its full-time employees, Vermilion and operations director Doug Baker, and part-time office staff, and asking many people who had previously been paid for their work during the festival to volunteer this year.
The land does not necessarily have to go, Vermilion said. A low six-figure contribution from one or multiple sources could get Ichthus through its current financial issues, he said. But the financial demands of owning the land would present an ongoing problem, which is why the organization is putting an emphasis on selling the property.
"We really do hope we can find a buyer who will lease the land back to us or let us use it for the festival," Vermilion said. "That's the first choice we're going after."
He said he could see the property being developed as a retreat and conference center with facilities that could also be used during the Ichthus Festival. At one time, Ichthus had talked about having other festivals and events at the amphitheater during the year, but that has not worked out except for a few attractions such as the J.D. Crowe Bluegrass Festival.
"An event really has to be a destination unto itself to work out here," Vermilion said.
If that benevolent buyer does not come forward, Vermilion said, the property could be sold to developers, with Ichthus relocating to another site, such as the Kentucky Horse Park. Ichthus was approached about a sale five years ago, in a much better real estate market, with a $2 million offer, Vermilion said.
For now, the organization is hoping people will respond to Ichthus' needs so it can go with Plan A, keeping the the longest-running Christian music festival in the country alive and in Wilmore.