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Holding pattern: AirFest's future depends on big teams, sponsors

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Jim Leute
March 24, 2013

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— If Southern Wisconsin AirFest is to return next year, organizers say they need a commitment from a major jet team, a different weekend date and considerably more community support to help pay for an annual event that's lost money the last two years.

Organizers last fall canceled this year's event, primarily because neither the Air Force Thunderbirds nor Navy Blue Angels would be on the bill.

While the Canadian Snowbirds were signed, organizers decided the 2013 show had the makings of another financial bath on Memorial Day weekend, particularly because it was scheduled just one week before a show in Rockford, where the Blue Angels were scheduled to perform.

The air show first took flight in 2002 as an event to support the Wisconsin Aviation Academy, a nonprofit organization founded in 2001 to help at-risk students improve their educational skills and achievement through aviation-based activities.

Over the years, AirFest—incorporated as a nonprofit in 2004—has been able to donate more than $400,000 to the academy.

The donations came in the event's boom years, primarily those in which the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels flew.

Other years, however, there were limited or no donations to the academy, including the last two, when event expenses far outpaced revenues.

In fact, the financial results of last year's show were so bleak that a handful of vendors weren't paid until earlier this month, some of them after The Gazette inquired about the status of AirFest's 2012 liabilities.

Turbulence

It's been a bumpy financial ride for AirFest, which since its inception has had one main sponsor: ABC Supply Co.

Since 2004, the show's revenues have exceeded expenses in four out of nine years, according to tax records filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

In each of 2004 and 2005, AirFest made donations approaching $100,000 to the academy and still maintained a healthy fund balance. The Thunderbirds and Blue Angels were the respective headliners.

Without a major jet team, the next two years were different. Expenses exceeded revenues, no donations were made to the academy and the organization's fund balance dipped below zero.

An appearance by the Canadian Snowbirds improved the financial landscape in 2008, as income was sufficient to make a donation to the academy and prop up the fund balance.

The next two years—2009 and 2010—were arguably the show's most successful, with estimates of 40,000 to 60,000 viewers on the grounds at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport.

The Blue Angels flew in 2009, and the Thunderbirds and Snowbirds strutted their stuff the following year. The Wisconsin Aviation Academy received healthy contributions and the fund balance remained stable.

AirFest organizers describe the financial results of the last two shows—those in 2011 and 2012 and neither with a big jet team—with blunt adjectives.

"Not well," said Tom Morgan, AirFest's executive director and the founder and president of the Wisconsin Aviation Academy.

"Terrible," said George Messina, who chairs AirFest's board of directors.

"Horrible," said Diane Hendricks, co-founder and chairwoman of ABC Supply.

The right recipe

Instead of the steady, sustained flight AirFest organizers envisioned, the event's history has been marked by a series of financial takeoffs and landings, including what can best be described as the crashes of the last two years.

Morgan, Messina and Hendricks sat for an interview March 8 to discuss AirFest's mission and the organization's challenges—past, present and future.

To a person, they're committed to an air show that benefits the aviation academy, entertains attendees and contributes to the economic well being of Rock County.

Messina said the event needs a better weekend date.

While traditionally held Memorial Day weekend, the show changed dates in 2011 when it was staged on a September weekend that offered country singer Aaron Tippin, but no major jet team. Organizers estimated attendance at 12,000 to 14,000.

Again without the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels in 2012, AirFest had other issues.

Spectators were deprived of a full jet team performance by the Black Diamonds. A pyro jet truck was put out of commission when its transporter swerved to avoid a deer on the way to the show.

Then came severe thunderstorms, high winds, heavy rain and oppressive heat. Attendance again was estimated near the historic low-water mark of 12,000 to 14,000.

"It's got to be the right weekend, and Memorial Day weekend is not a good weekend for an air show," Messina said. "For us, it's real important that it's not on a holiday weekend, it's not near the Rockford air show time period and we have to have a real jet team, the Thunderbirds or the Blue Angels."

AirFest's financial records support the idea that the Thunderbirds or the Blue Angels generate the most revenue.

"The ups and downs are more or less related to the jet team and the weather," Morgan said.

Community support

While AirFest promoters can't control the weather on any given weekend, they said they need to lock down corporate sponsorship for the event, which in the last nine years has averaged about $280,000 to stage. The primary expenses are fuel for civilian performers and lodging and food for the crews.

Each year, ABC Supply commits $110,000 to the event and spends another $40,000 or so on tickets to distribute among employees and customers.

Corporate sponsorship beyond ABC ranges from a total of about $15,000 to $50,000 a year.

"We live in a community of 250,000 people, and we just don't get the (corporate) support for something that is a very expensive gift to the community," Hendricks said. "You just can't do it with one sponsor."

Messina said the event needs more sponsors and better gate receipts.

He said Morgan has spent years knocking on corporate doors but can't drum up significant, sustained support.

"Some just don't understand what Wisconsin Aviation Academy is all about," Morgan said. "People don't ask for you to come sit with them on a sales call, and they're sometimes distracted.

"It's not a high priority, and there are lots of good causes."

Messina said he sometimes senses an "opinion in the community that AirFest makes a ton of money and people are enriching themselves.

"That's not the case at all," he said. "On the day of the last show, we've got to pay everybody off in full or they don't fly that day.

"There's a lot associated with the show that makes it extremely difficult to come in with numbers that allow us to make the contribution to WAA that we're looking to make."

Unpaid bills paid

Last year's poor financial performance resulted in about $75,000 in bills that weren't immediately paid.

Among them was a bill from a Janesville hotel that put up performers and crews. Another was from Rock County, which was owed more than $7,000 for deputy services and airport-related costs.

Messina and Hendricks said the AirFest board struggled with the unpaid bills for months.

The situation, they said, became even more acute when it was apparent there would be no air show—or revenue—this year or possibly in the future.

On the day of the interview with The Gazette, ABC Supply made an additional contribution to AirFest that would allow the organization to pay its outstanding bills. AirFest then wrote checks to its vendors.

"We've gone back and forth on this for two or three months and made the decision today that those bills will be paid," Hendricks said, adding that ABC made its additional contribution as a civic effort to help protect the integrity of AirFest and position it for the future.

The contribution, she said, was not made because ABC was responsible or liable for the unpaid bills.

In a perfect world, she said there would be an air show in 2013 and ABC could make its normal commitment of $110,000 that would more than cover last year's debts.

"Then we could hopefully make some money and go forward," she said.

But there will be no show in 2013, and Hendricks said without a revenue stream or more community support, it would have reflected poorly on AirFest to force vendors to sit on their bills any longer.

That's why ABC made the additional contribution, she said.

AirFest 2014?

One obvious solution to end the financial acrobatics is to end AirFest altogether.

ABC Supply, Hendricks said, could just as easily make a direct donation to the Wisconsin Aviation Academy.

But that doesn't appear to be on the table.

In addition to benefiting the academy in good years, the show also benefits several other organizations, those who park cars, set up fencing or sell food and beverages.

"While the main purpose of the event is the academy, there is a sharing of the wealth," Morgan said. "When the years are good, it's pretty strong."

In fact, the good years pump at least $2 million into the local economy, according to a formula often used by the Janesville Area Convention & Visitors Building to assess economic impacts.

The AirFest board has 16 members, and Messina said 14 attended a meeting earlier this month.

"Everyone still wants to know what we can do, how we can make it work," he said, noting that without a show this year, the board is looking for other ways to help the academy.

Messina and Hendricks said the organization is looking at three- or five-year agreements that would lock in corporate sponsors.

"It wouldn't be for three consecutive calendar years," Messina said. "It would be for every year in three years that we have a big team on a good weekend, you'll be there for us."

In the short term, the fate of next year's show likely will be decided in December when the Thunderbirds announce their 2014 schedule. The Blue Angels already have released theirs, and AirFest is not on it.

"At this point in time we can't predict whether there will be or won't be a show in 2014," Messina said.

Hendricks said there's a mistaken assumption that AirFest materializes out of thin air year after year.

"I just think that to have an event, whether it's AirFest or anything this costly, you need the community," she said. "You just do."



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