Oakland's nationally acclaimed monthly street festival is at risk because the city will soon stop subsidizing it, and a depleted volunteer organizing committee hasn't figured out how to make it pay for itself.
After pumping $500,000 into Oakland First Fridays, the city is intent on passing the baton next month to the committee, which is scrambling to line up money and volunteers.
"We're all just hustling to keep this event alive, but at this point we just don't have enough money to save it," organizer Edward Yoo said.
It costs about $20,000 per month to hold the street festival, which includes money for security, street closures and permit fees. Given that nearly 10,000 people saturate five blocks of Telegraph Avenue on festival nights, spending money at vendor stands, bars and restaurants, financing the event shouldn't be a challenge, experts say.
But organizers have been reluctant to charge vendors other than food trucks, and businesses that benefit from the event haven't rallied to their side.
It's taken five months just to raise enough money for one festival. That will be in July after city funds run out.
As for August and beyond, the city is working with festival organizers and a local merchant group to see if they can make the event pay for itself. The city hasn't ruled out additional help if the organizers show progress, but there is no guarantee of success.
"It all depends on whether the organization can sustain it by raising the money," said the city's First Friday point person, Samee Roberts. "That is still unknown."
The festival began seven years ago as a gallery crawl, known as the Art Murmur. It kept growing, at first swallowing up one block for revelers. As crowds multiplied and began spilling into other streets, the art galleries gave up control to the volunteer group, which turned it into a full-fledged street festival.
City leaders encouraged its expansion last year by agreeing to close 10 blocks of Telegraph Avenue and picking up all the costs. The footprint was cut in half after a deadly gunbattle at the tail end of February's festival.
July begins a new budget year for the city. There is no money earmarked for the event and no political consensus that the city should continue subsidizing it indefinitely when other Oakland festivals get no public funds.
Volunteers were supposed to be ready to take the reins by now, but they still haven't produced a business or an event management plan, and they're still not organized enough to even apply for permits.
For months, the group frustrated city officials and alienated potential business allies by modeling its meetings on Occupy Oakland, refusing to appoint leaders and operating purely on consensus.
John Mardikian, whose Telegraph Avenue beer garden is one of the event's biggest beneficiaries, recalled attending a crowded, unruly session when business was interrupted by someone intent on discussing the plight of heroin addicts.
"I found them so frustrating," he said. "I would never go back."
So many people have left the organizing committee that the half dozen regulars who remain now face a different problem. They can hold orderly meetings and act decisively, but as volunteers with other jobs, they don't have the time to formulate a business plan or recruit sponsors that could keep the event going.
"We have to get the community's attention that we need help moving this forward," organizer Isioma Copes said.
Karen Hester, who coordinates festivals in Oakland, said First Friday is too important to the city to let it fail or to be entrusted to a volunteer group.
"It can't be done by an ad hoc group of people who can't pay themselves," she said. "It's totally fundable if there are the right people in place with art experience who know how to raise money. But that's not what this group has been."
The group recently has been raising about $3,500 a month in food truck fees and donations. It secured its first major sponsorship this month -- $5,000 from Ex'pression College for Digital Arts.
Organizers are planning to launch an online fundraising campaign, but there is still no agreement about charging street vendors.
"Many of the vendors just kind of pop up, and that's part of the flavor of the event itself," Yoo said. "There has been a lot of push-back from the community about charging them."
Organizers say they'd be willing to give up some control to a professional as long as the event kept its independent, community-focused spirit.
"I don't see the volunteer model being sustainable," Yoo said. "It's just been about five of us. We're all tired, but we'd hate to see this thing go away."
Copes, who's been volunteering up to 20 hours a week, said her motivation has been seeing her friends from San Francisco, who never before would have crossed the bay to hang out in Oakland, make the trek every month.
"I love Oakland, and I love First Friday," she said. "It's something I really want to succeed."
The next First Friday is scheduled for June 7. Volunteer organizing meetings begin at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays at The Uptown Studios, 1738 Telegraph Ave.
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.