For 52 years, the Kentuck Arts Center has held its annual festival North of the Black Warrior River in Northport’s Kentuck Park. Now, it’s coming to Tuscaloosa, but not without controversy.
On Tuesday night, all seven members of the Tuscaloosa City Council voted for a resolution authorizing Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox to execute a memorandum of understanding with the arts center.
The memo of understanding serves as an agreement between two or more parties that is not necessarily legally binding but “signals the willingness of the parties to move forward with a contract.”
Less than a day later, the Kentuck Art Center announced the 2024 festival will be held on October 19-20 in Tuscaloosa. However, an exact location for the festival is yet to be announced.
“A new location for the Kentuck Festival of the Arts means new challenges, but also new opportunities,” said Kentuck Art Center Board President Bobby Bragg in a statement on Facebook. “We have very high expectations for the 2024 festival. We have the utmost confidence in the people running this organization on a day-to-day basis to fulfill Kentuck’s mission to perpetuate the arts, engage the community, and empower the artist.”
Maddox also spoke to the festival’s decision to move.
“In the last several days, we have worked with Kentuck to explore ways to retain the festival in our region,” he said. “This festival is a nationally recognized and time-honored event, and it was critical it stay in our community.”
The Kentuck Arts Center has been hosting the festival since 1971. The festival began as a centennial celebration for the City of Northport. Every year, it features over 270 artists and provides festival-goers with opportunities to purchase local food and craft beer while listening to live music and exploring Alabama’s folk artists.
In 2018, it was recognized by the Alabama Department of Tourism as one of the top 10 events to attend in the state.
According to reports, attendees at this year’s festival in October complained about a large mound of dirt next to the park. The city was keeping the dirt there to use on its planned sports complex.
The festival’s organizers first announced in November they were looking for a new venue after they failed to reach an agreement with the City of Northport to secure Kentuck Park for the event. They claimed the city moved to decrease funding while securing a longer contract, all while refusing to clarify whether construction would impact the festival.
“It is regrettable that a few city leaders have put us in this position,” Bragg said that month. “Kentuck and Northport have enjoyed a mutually beneficial partnership, but now we’re forced to look at relocating an event that has grown significantly over the years … The city wanted us to sign a contract with less funding and no certainty on where future festivals were to be held.”
Kentuck organizers estimate the festival generates around $5 million in economic impact and claim up to 20,000 visitors travel to the city each year to attend the event.
The Northport City Council then offered a new agreement earlier this month, which guaranteed the art center at the Kentuck Park location, promised to reduce construction, reduced the contract length to one year and included $80,000 in agency funding, $12,000 more than the previous offer.
Nevertheless, city attorney Ron Davis accused Bragg and Kentuck executive director Amy Echols of being lairs determined to break ties between the festival and Northport.
1819 News reached out to Davis’s office for comment about the festival’s recent decision to move, but he did not respond.
Even after the proposal, Kentuck’s board told the press it was still deliberating its path forward.
Northport Council President Jeff Hogg requested a meeting with Kentuck before Tuesday’s Tuscaloosa City Council meeting. In an email obtained by multiple media outlets, Hogg said he was “not surprised” that Kentuck was flirting with Tuscaloosa and said that removing the festival from Northport has “been threatened for years.” He requested the meeting be open to the media.
Such a meeting did not occur.
Negotiations between the City of Tuscaloosa and the arts center are nothing new, however.
According to Patch.com, Hogg accused Tuscaloosa officials of considering raising $3 million to bring Kentuck across the Black Warrior River on a local radio show, citing information from an anonymous businessman.
In response, Maddox said the only discussion he had with Kentuck was allowing Kentuck to use a library facility for an art center. The idea never came to fruition and had nothing to do with the festival.
1819 News also contacted Hogg for a comment about the incident, and he did not respond.
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