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Parks board does deep dive on Austin City Limits Fest contract for Zilker Park

Thursday, February 27, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s contract with Austin City Limits promoter C3 Presents was put under the microscope at Tuesday’s meeting of the Parks and Recreation Board, as part of an overall look at how the Parks and Recreation Department can generate more revenue to fund its programming and maintenance costs.

No action was taken at the conclusion of the presentation by city staff and a representative from the Austin Parks Foundation, which annually receives millions of dollars from C3 to improve and expand parks throughout the city.

During the meeting it was disclosed that the festival paid $2.4 million to cover city costs for the 2019 festival, including a $100,000 use fee for Zilker Park set by City Council, plus $1.4 million from six days of ticket revenue.

Slide from Parks and Recreation Board briefing.

PARD received $1.6 million of the total reimbursement, with $500,000 for Austin Police Department presence outside the festival, $110,000 to the Austin Fire Department, $60,000 for emergency medical services, $30,000 for transportation fees, and $20,000 for health permitting.

It was also revealed that the economic impact for the 2019 festival was estimated at $291 million, an increase of $27 million from the 2018 event. The festival’s annual attendance, which is topped at 75,000 people per day, exceeds 400,000 people. During the festival, which runs for two weekends each October, Zilker Park is blocked off from public use for 25 days to allow for setup and teardown.

The parks foundation nonprofit, which has an $8.2 million annual budget to fund parks improvements and land acquisition throughout the city, is expected to receive $6.2 million from C3 Presents from last year’s festival.

Slide from Parks and Recreation Board briefing.

Last month, board Chair Dawn Lewis requested city staff prepare a presentation on the C3/Zilker agreement so she and other members could get a full understanding of the city’s relationship with the global entertainment company that’s based in Austin.

Jason Maurer, sales and event manager for PARD, said the city charter caps the use fee and total reimbursement for using the park at whatever costs the city incurs, plus the $100,000 figure for all large events set by Council during the most recent budget session.

“You have to remember, as a government entity, we are unable in our charter to rent or lease parkland,” Maurer said. “We can only charge the cost to provide the service. We do not have what you would have in a hotel situation or the use of a convention center space or room to charge market rate because our charter doesn’t let us.”

As a result of that cap, C3 started its partnership with the parks foundation in 2006, donating millions each year to fund parks-related efforts.

Colin Wallis, the foundation’s CEO, said to date C3 Presents has donated more than $41 million to the foundation, with some high-profile projects including the recent improvement to Republic Square Park along with more than $1 million per year specifically allocated to historically underserved communities.

The city’s agreement with C3 has historically been one of the more debated and scrutinized contracts in local circles, in part because the company pays higher fees to other cities for events on public property.

Board members asked Maurer and Wallis for additional breakdowns of the company’s expenses, and what portion of festival revenue is accounted for in the portion of ticket fees going to the city, which max out at $3 per ticket per day.

Board Member Rich DePalma said the funding for parks improvements throughout the city in addition to the annual restoration of Zilker Park make the festival an asset to the city.

“With C3, I wish we had city partners like them. Can you imagine if we had more corporate partners like that throughout the city, what we could do to improve parks and open space? It’s a phenomenal gift that we have in Austin,” he said. “It’s a difficult balance, of course, when we’re shutting down the park for 25 days, and the impact of traffic during the festival. What I love about our department and the parks foundation is they’re always trying to mitigate that and make it as seamless as possible.”

Also discussed on Tuesday was the plan to repair the cap on the landfill that covers a portion of the Zilker Park property. Liana Kallivoka, assistant director for PARD, said temporary repair work on the cap is expected to begin in April and run through late summer in collaboration with C3, with a permanent fix among the recommendations that will be included in a forthcoming master plan for the park.

“We have a landfill cap that has not been maintained for a long time and we have seen the deterioration. A couple of years ago we brought a maintenance plan that at some point we had to put aside,” she said. “We still have to address the cap so we are working again with C3 and Watershed Protection and Development Services to come to an agreement of what that maintenance plan is going to look like. It’s not going to be as involved. We want to just do enough so we protect the cap.”

Photo by John Karowski made available through a Creative Commons license.

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