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Ichthus Festival to continue in 2012 while buyer is sought for property

Ichthus, the oldest Christian music festival in the nation, will see more high-flying acts like Philmont and its lead  guitarist Josiah Prince now that organizers have set their sights on a 2012 edition. Philmont played June 18 at this year's edition of the festival in Wilmore.
Ichthus, the oldest Christian music festival in the nation, will see more high-flying acts like Philmont and its lead guitarist Josiah Prince now that organizers have set their sights on a 2012 edition. Philmont played June 18 at this year's edition of the festival in Wilmore.

The Ichthus Festival has not sold the farm, but it will continue with a full-fledged 2012 edition.

On the closing night of the 42nd annual Ichthus Festival in June, festival president and chief executive Mark Vermilion told the crowd that Ichthus Ministries was in financial straits that could force cancellation of future events. Two days later, the festival site in Wilmore, known as Ichthus Farm, was put up for sale, with organizers hoping to find a buyer who would lease the property back to Ichthus each June for the festival. The asking price began at $900,000, well below offers that the festival says it received from developers in the middle of the past decade.

On Tuesday afternoon, after a meeting of Ichthus' board, Vermilion said the site has not been sold, but "there have been enough positive things happening in the last few months that we really felt like we could do a 43rd edition of the Ichthus Festival and do it with the same level of quality that we've always had at the festival. Once we knew we could do that, we were ready to pull the trigger."

Vermilion said Ichthus is not out of the woods financially. He said the organization had radically reshaped its financial model, downsizing from five full-time staffers a few years ago to three part-timers now. It also has put a heavier emphasis on fund-raising. As for the property sale, Vermilion said, there have been discussions with a few potential buyers and there are hopes a sale will be completed in four to six months.

"That would really reduce our overhead," said Vermilion, who also teaches at Asbury University and is helping to launch its new center for cultural engagement.

Ichthus, which started at Asbury Seminary in 1970, moved to its current 111-acre home off U.S. 68 in Wilmore in 1999. At that time, the festival attracted 20,000 people a year. Recently, after moving the event from late April to June after repeated problems with inclement early spring weather, crowds have been more modest, about 15,000. That's due to the schedule change and to the changing dynamics of the Christian concert market, organizers said. The 2011 festival, Vermilion said, was the first in more than five years not to lose money.

As revenue fell in recent years, the cost of maintaining the festival property, which is used only once a year, became a greater burden, Vermilion said.

Ichthus has received a lot of positive support financially and otherwise from many area people, businesses and organizations "who said, 'You've been here for us, and we want to keep the festival going,'" Vermilion said.

He said he and the board feared that if the 2012 edition had been canceled or postponed, it would have sapped the momentum that Ichthus was experiencing.

"We feel really great about the 2012 festival, and this gives us a chance for things to keep moving in a positive direction and to set up to work beyond year 43," Vermilion said.

No acts have been booked for next year's event because performers could not be signed until it was determined that the festival would happen, Vermilion said. Now that it's on, he said, he and the paid and volunteer staff will begin working on booking the festival, starting with headliners.

Starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday, the festival will offer $50 festival tickets to the first 1,000 people who buy them at Ichthusfestival.org.

"We were so excited to be able to announce this, we wanted to do something right away to thank our most loyal supporters," Vermilion said.

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