High hopes for not-for-profit to save the Banana Festival (long read)

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INCREASED FINANCIAL pressure and mounting community negativity from social media has resulted in a vote from Rotary Club of Murwillumbah Central Inc members to cease the club’s involvement with the Banana Festival and to hand it off to another potential operator.

The Rotary Club of Murwillumbah Central’s motion was carried during the club’s monthly meeting on Tuesday, March 21, in which more than 15 members met to discuss the matter.

The club emphasised its commitment to handing the Tweed Valley Banana Festival off to a similar non-for-profit club or group, while also made a commitment to offer assistance to the new potential operator to undertake the festival drawing on the Rotary club’s 10 years of experience.

The offer throws down an attractive challenge for a similar not-for-profit organisation to step up and take over one of the longest running festivals in Australia, as well as ensuring its long-term survival.

In fact, in many ways it was the Rotary Club of Murwillumbah Central who more than a decade ago raised its hand to take on the festival when it was in similar jeopardy during the mid-2000s.

Rotary (D9640) Assistant Governor Denis Hallworth recently expressed this view in the club’s monthly newsletter of which an extract is below.

“In the mid-2000s our Rotary club was asked by the festival committee to assist with a serious problem when they were not able to find an insurance company willing to offer suitable cover,” Mr Hallworth wrote.

“We agreed to cover the festival under the Rotary insurance policy, the requirements by our insurance company being that the event could not be a separate incorporated body, but a project of the club.

“Had we not been able to make these arrangements the Banana Festival would have ceased to exist at that time.”

However, Mr Hallworth said the recent change came when Tweed Shire Council altered their policy for supporting festivals resulted in a “significant reduction when we had asked for a significant increase” to festival funds.

“In addition, we were informed that future support will be subject to the festival being altered to meet modern expectations in its program and events, and meeting the many safety and other regulations such as garbage, traffic control and crowd control,” Mr Hallworth wrote.

“Hard to do on a limited budget with volunteer personnel. The writing was on the wall, change or fail. Either find more sponsors or in a short time the Festival would be losing money, not meeting legal requirements, and in great trouble.

“We needed to put the festival on a more professional basis and to do that needs more sponsorship.”

The club invited The Weekly editor Jonathon Howard, Tweed Experience Network and Mt Warning Tours operator Michael Simmons, Murwillumbah icon and Murwillumbah Lions Club member Phil Taylor and his son and Murwillumbah Apex Club member Duncan Taylor.

During the meeting it was noted that for the past ten years the Rotary Club of Murwillumbah has been committed to operating the Tweed Valley Banana Festival without profit and to the benefit of the community.

The club also acknowledge the hard work and efforts of the Banana Festival Committee, who late last week expressed their views with a walk out during a Rotary Club of Murwillumbah Central meeting after a decision was made to change the festival to become known as “Harvest Festival”.

The walkout was made public via social media and resulted in widespread criticism.

But according to the Rotary Club Central Inc President Elect Tony Thompson there was “no choice” but to make the name change in order to modernise the festival and meet the demands from sponsors in order to afford mounting costs due to tightening festival regulations.

News of the name change also resulted in widespread negative reaction from those closely connected to the festival, which in turn impacted the wider community with complaints ranging from a need to undertake community consultation to calls for a compromise with names such as the Banana and Harvest Festival.

But the recent public backlash has pushed some members at Rotary Club of Murwillumbah Central to question whether the festival should continue with the club and ultimately a vote was carried to cease the festival under the club’s operation.

While there are many differing views on the processors towards the name change and whether the club could have continued the festival remains a mystery and the club said its involvement in the festival had now reached an end, a view that Mr Hallworth touched on in the club’s newsletter.

“Since then (the walk out) a social media campaign has been aimed at our club, irrespective of fact the festival would have folded several years ago had we not agreed to bring the event under Rotary,” he wrote. 

However, the festival manager Eryn Young said “no social media campaign was made by the committee”.

“I simply posted my resignation that sparked community outrage,” Mrs Young said.

Meanwhile, Mr Hallworth highlighted that running the Banana Festival became the club’s responsibility “by accident when it agreed to cover the festival with Rotary insurance”.

“It is possible another organisation may feel sufficiently confident and have the resources to go ahead with the festival in its existing form, and should such an organisation come forward, I would be pleased if we assist where we can, if they wish our support.”

While the social media comments had the intension of drawing community input to the matter, it may have also had negative impacts on the Rotary Club of Murwillumbah Central members, who have since had negative comments directed towards them both in public and via social media comments.

Mounting costs which Mr Thompson explained were associated with the festival under its current title were difficult, although communication issues resulted in the Banana Festival committee stating that they were less informed that the festival was facing imminent closure without a name change.

However, the club said the matter was brought to the table many times although the festival committee said “it did not support a name change nor support the enlisting of a fundraising manager”.

Mr Thompson said the club had worked in the interests of the festival in order to address mounting costs.

“We had engaged an fundraising manager to advise us on the best way forward in order to gain enough sponsorship interest to keep the festival alive,” Mr Thompson said.

“We were not going to change the core events parades and Banana Queen traditions, in fact we had intended to enhance them through this sponsorship support.”

However, the festival committee had expressed “shock” that the club had taken advice from one source to change the name “instead of consulting the committee”. 

Mr Thompson said the company had advised the club to change the name to Harvest Festival and that sponsors would then express greater “interest” in the festival.

“We were told the name Banana Festival wasn’t what they wanted,” he said.

Mrs Young said “there appeared to be no negotiations with those involved with the festival and felt my input was no longer valued”.

“Had we known the situation was so dire and would require a name change, we would have helped to gain the sponsorship and make up the shortfall, but changing the festival goes against the original concept,” Mrs Young said.

“I feel during this whole process there’s been a complete lack of communication which resulted in poor decisions being made.”

Mrs Young also encouaged another not-for-profit to take the highly historical event and she’s also expressed a willingness to help mentor the new group or club, if required.

“I’d encourage another not-for-profit to take on the Tweed Valley Banana Festival, it’s a shame what has happened but I’m hopeful for a positive outcome,” she said.

Mrs Young would like to thank the Rotary Club of Murwillumbah Central members for their custodialship of the festival during the past 10 years.

Although the festival’s future is uncertain a campaign to “save the Banana Festival” is gaining early momentum with the possibility another not-for-profit to throw it’s hand up as well as local businesses throwing their support behind the event.

The challenge remains as to whether another not-for-profit group or club will support the Tweed Valley Banana Festival now and into the future. There has been some early indication of hope, but time is also running out with the need to start recruitment for the Banana Queens and more.

The Weekly has offered to contribute financially and through the media to continue to promote the event and would like to appeal to current and existing sponsors to continue to support the next group to take on the iconic festival.

Australia’s second longest running festival, the beloved Tweed Valley Banana Festival was started in 1956 by Murwillumbah local banana grower Bill Taylor who wanted to promote the benefits of eating bananas.

The festival has since grown into a tradition of celebrating local services, charities and agriculture while inspiring the lives of young people through the Banana Queen Titles.

The son of banana Bill Taylor and Murwillumbah local identity Phil Taylor, who told The Weekly he was “pleased with the outcome”.

“The Rotary Club of Murwillumbah Central has done a great job over the past ten years and we should give thanks and praise for this service,” he said.

“I was happy with the motion that was carried by the club and I would also encourage another not-for-profit to take the festival on.”

Any not-for-profit club or group wanting to find out more about the Tweed Valley Banana Festival is encouraged to contact Rotary Club of Murwillumbah Central Inc.