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RC Talk: Ichthus couldn't risk a one-year layoff

Rachel Woolly, 18, left, and Audrey Matteson, 18, held their hands up in praise while Mikeschair played on the main stage at Ichthus Festival 2011 on Saturday.
Rachel Woolly, 18, left, and Audrey Matteson, 18, held their hands up in praise while Mikeschair played on the main stage at Ichthus Festival 2011 on Saturday.

If the Ichthus Festival was going to go on, it had to go on.

In August, when we sat down with festival president and chief executive Mark Vermilion to talk about the financial difficulties that had put Ichthus in jeopardy, one of the possibilities he mentioned was Ichthus skipping its 2012 edition and coming back "bigger and better in 2013."

At the end of this year's festival, Ichthus leaders announced the festival was in severe financial difficulties. They put the festival property, known as Ichthus Farm, up for sale with hopes of finding a buyer who would lease it back to them for the annual Christian music event each June while relieving Ichthus of the costs of maintaining the 111-acre site in Wilmore.

If there was no sale, Vermilion said, there was a good chance Ichthus 2012 wouldn't happen.

Tuesday, Ichthus announced the festival would go even though the farm hasn't been sold. He cited positive momentum in fund-raising and expectations that the property will be sold soon. Vermilion had a much more frank view of that take-a-year off option.

"We were concerned that if we took a year off, some of those things that were moving in a positive direction might have to curtail because there's no fuel to drive them," he said. "We were also concerned that if we took year 43 off that there would even be a year 44, because who knows if those folks who have been so loyal to the festival would take a year off and come back for year 44. Those are some unknowns that were concerns of ours."

And he's right. My colleagues and I struggled to conjure up any memories of entertainment organizations that closed for a significant period and then came back "bigger and better than ever," as is typically promised.

It can feel like a good thing to say, particularly if you're looking at shutting down a major regional event that has been running more than four decades and has tremendous meaning to a lot of people. It's sort of like breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend and saying, "Oh, maybe we'll get back together someday." Actually, that probably has a better record of success than major arts and entertainment events that shut down and try to come back.

Closing for a year is like putting a pin to the balloon of your event. It takes the air out of it, and try as you might, it is really hard to pump it back up.

Just think about this: Right now, the next Ichthus is nine months away. Not imminent, but close enough that die-hard fans can be a little excited and contributors can feel as if they'll see the results of their efforts soon.

Cancel 2012, and the next Ichthus is 21 months away. In 21 months, students starting junior years of high school and college will have graduated. The next presidential term will be six months along. We will have had two Thanksgivings, Christmases and Easters. In this market of meteoric rises, today's garage band could become Ichthus 2013's headliner in 21 months.

It's a long time.

Add to that weariness the loser image, fair or not, that dogs an event that has to shut down. Yes, times are tough in a variety of ways, but closing carries a connotation of failure.

Some might say that not selling the Ichthus property should have been a sign to organizers that it was over, or at least time to take a break. And there could be validity to that.

But to put it in simple rock 'n' roll terms (credit The Clash) the question was, should I stay or should I go?

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