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"It's been written up in national journals," says Chuck Haddix, local author and host of The Fish Fry on KCUR 89.3.
"One thing that distinguishes it from other festivals is, it's a grassroots festival put on by people in the community," he says. "It's a festival that started out in one of the most depressed areas of Kansas City, and people came down because it's real."
On the Missouri side, when Kansas City was a real music city, clubs lined 12th Street and Vine. Now, that corner is a barren park and a housing project.
It's the same story in KCK's Northeast District — it's just not as well-known because Kansas City, Kansas, has worked even harder than KCMO has to deny its musical heritage.
If the Street Blues Festival is shut down, people are asking, how much longer before that heritage is forgotten altogether?
This is not a festival that makes money.
Usually, Gilley raises around $15,000 per festival, give or take a couple of thousand, and makes sure all the musicians get paid. He put it on for as little as $8,000 in the early years.
Raising the money involves collecting lots of checks in the low-hundred-dollar range from local businesses and organizations.
Past sponsors who have given at least $2,000 include O'Reilly Auto Parts, State Farm Insurance and Price Chopper. A couple of years, he had no major sponsors.
And Gilley is adamant about not trying to make money off alcohol sales.
"We don't have the money to bring in a big national headliner," he explains, "and people aren't going to come see artists whose names they've never heard of if they're going to have to pay for beer."
Besides, Gilley says, not letting people bring their own refreshments will compromise the fest's small-town feel.
"To be successful," he says, "we must have that carefreeness and be open."
The biggest budget he has ever had was $32,000 in 2003, thanks to the first of two $10,000 grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (the other was in 2005). And 2003 was the only year the festival had a significant amount of money left over: $4,000. Each year, Gilley says, any leftover money goes to the artists.
In 2006, the festival moved to Kaw Point Riverfront Park — a lovely but hard-to-find sanctuary behind an industrial parking lot at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers.
One factor in the move from Third Street was the death of John Wilson, a Northeast District community leader of the unofficial variety. After Wilson's death, Gilley heard murmurs that things might not go well for the festival if it remained on Third Street.
That same year, the festival was fully funded by the nonprofit Kaw Valley Arts and Humanities Inc., which, under Executive Director Chris Wright, had raised money for the event every year between 2000 and 2006. For the '05 and '06 fests, Wright acted as president of the festival with Gilley stepping back to board member.
The festival had seen its biggest attendance in 2005. In 2006, when it moved to Kaw Point, Kaw Valley Arts decided to charge a $5 admission, sell beer and not allow people to bring their own beverages.
It was a disaster.
Attendance dropped tenfold, to fewer than 1,000 for a three-day fest. Intermittent rain dampened spirits, even though Kaw Valley Arts had shelled out money to pay for one of the best lineups that the festival had ever seen.
"Our vendors did terrible," Gilley recalls.
He resumed presidency of the festival. (Wright died in 2008.) Though Kaw Valley Arts covered the festival's loss, which Gilley estimates at $25,000, the setback, combined with the need for a new location, prompted Gilley to give the festival a year off in '07.