There haven’t been any recent studies of the economic impact of the Newport jazz and folk festivals. Not even 83-year-old impresario George Wein, who founded the festivals more than 50 years ago knows the answer – but some positive effects are certain.
The festivals bring thousands of people to Newport, the hoteliers and restaurateurs benefit from the business generated by the productions and, even more importantly to some, both the jazz and folk festivals are signature events for which Newport – and to a lesser extent, Rhode Island – is known worldwide.
“We do not draw the people we used to. We have much more competition,” Wein said during a recent telephone interview from his home in New York City. The festivals combined used to draw as many as 40,000 people to the City by the Sea up through the mid-1990s, Wein said. This year, he expects 20,000 to 30,000 for both, a drop attributed to today’s increased competition for the entertainment dollar.
“I don’t know what the festivals mean to the Newport economy, they never release figures like that,” Wein said. “All I know is [Newport businesses] all want the festivals back.”
Working with Louis and Elaine Lorillard of Newport, Wein established the jazz fest in 1954 and the folk fest in 1959, when a teenage Joan Baez (scheduled to return to the folk festival this year) was one of the performers. He later created a company that he has since sold to oversee the events, but in recent years has limited his involvement. However, when he heard the festivals might be canceled this year due to financial troubles at the new production company, he came out of semi-retirement to form yet another company – New Festival Productions LLC – and save the events.
“The people who produced the festivals last year didn’t have any money to do them this year, so I just jumped in there. I created these things and I have to keep them alive, that’s all,” Wein said. “I’ve been producing them for 55 years and, hey, I’m 83 years old, I’ve got nothing else to do. When something is part of your life, you don’t want to see it disappear just because some people goofed.”
The folks in Newport are mighty glad he and his festivals are back.
Kathryn Farrington, vice president of marketing for the Newport County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said she received calls of alarm from local hotel and restaurant owners when it seemed the festivals might be canceled. “We are so lucky to have George Wein continue his events here in Newport,” she said.