Updated March 30 at 4:30pm

WaterFire’s flame is flickering

At a time when it is more popular than ever, with cities across the nation and indeed the globe seeking to host it, WaterFire is struggling to stay alive in Providence.

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WaterFire’s flame is flickering


At a time when it is more popular than ever, with cities across the nation and indeed the globe seeking to host it, WaterFire is struggling to stay alive in Providence.

The event, which draws literally a million people downtown every year, faces a cumulative deficit of approximately $200,000 incurred in 2010 and 2011, according to Barnaby Evans, founder and executive artistic director, with no apparent way to raise the income needed, not only to cover the deficit, but also to pay for future installations.

“We cannot survive another year with these deficits,” Evans said. “We are questioning whether we will be here next year.”

He spoke to Providence Business News in a wide-ranging, exclusive interview about the financial struggles that could mean, in a worst-case scenario, the end of WaterFire or its relocation to another city.

Neither alternative satisfies Evans, who is determined to keep the fires burning here in Providence. “We are such a symbol of the Providence renaissance.”

His 26-member, full-time staff is stretched thin. A team of 400 active volunteers has become crucial to its continuance.

WaterFire resources are limited, with little prospect for generating more revenue beyond the generosity of corporate sponsors and availability of foundation grants.

Funds squirreled away for eventual purchase of a building, so all operations would be under one roof, were spent to cover expenses left outstanding by the 2010 and 2011 fiscal shortfalls. Five separate locations in the city now house bits and pieces of WaterFire, including 21 trucks, 100 braziers, 70 stereo speakers and 23 boats, with an annual rent of $52,000 – about one-third the market rate because landlords want to help, Evans said.

The irony is that WaterFire, as it struggles to survive in its hometown, is enjoying growing popularity elsewhere.

WaterFire has been held in Singapore, with installations planned in Venice and Rome in Italy. In the United States, WaterFire five years ago became an annual attraction in Kansas City, Mo. Fires have been lit in Columbus, Ohio, and Tacoma, Wash. Houston and Chicago have called Evans, looking to have their own WaterFires. Organizers cannot spend any Providence-intended donations in other locations, Evans noted, so other places cover their own expenses, including construction of braziers and boats.

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Why purchase 'a series of buildings'? Providence like most other RI communities MUST have vacant school buildings that could be used by Waterfire. Maybe start having a boat on either side of the river with volunteers collecting donations in creative ways - i.e. throw your change into the barrels or have long arm nets to reach up and collect the paper money donations. How about where vendors are selling foods - have volunteers being creative (but well maked as official collectors for Waterfire) collecting donations.

Monday, November 7, 2011 | Report this

Waterfire is a vital event to the city and to the businesses in the city. Perhaps the local restaurants which are substantially busier on Waterfire nights, would contribute a portion of their sales? I would imagine that even 2-5% would make a huge difference to Waterfire and it would be a way for the restaurants to "give back"?

Monday, November 7, 2011 | Report this

@ Stephen, volunteers do collect donations near the food vendors and many other locations. You may have noticed black stations with large jars and lighted blue signs requesting support. WaterFire does seek more ideas for creatively soliciting donations from visitors.

@ K, many downtown Providence restaurants are already sponsoring WaterFire. Are you suggesting an increase or diversion in the city hospitality tax?

It seems to me that Gordon Fox and Teresa Paiva Weed effectively cut WaterFire's budget by $100,000 per year by requiring WaterFire to host the Philharmonic without additional funds.

Considering all the tax breaks that are given out to various industries, it seems to me that Fox and TPW would have no problem shuffling funds and finding $200-400K for WaterFire if the public politely pressured them.

Teresa Paiva Weed: http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/PaivaWeed/

Gordon Fox: http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/Fox/

Monday, November 7, 2011 | Report this

@Michael, was simply stating that perhaps instead of a simple sponsorship...where the restaurants also receive advertising space, maybe on Waterfire nights the area restaurants could donate 2% of the nights receipts to Waterfire? I'm not suggesting a 'tax' but rather a way to thank Waterfire for the foot traffic that is brought to these restaurants. Yes, the Capital Grille is busy most Saturdays--but not all restaurants are booked solid the way that they are on a Waterfire night. For that matter hotels, should also consider something like this. The same for the gondolas, its over $150 for 2 people for a 30 minute gondola ride--that $1.50 per person could be given to Waterfire, its a nominal amount...but they carry 12 people per hour and ride for approx 6 hours, for 16 lightings at 2%, that would yield $1,700 a year...will it solve their problem, no...but if every downtown restaurant, hotel and vendor--did so, it could make a dent! These businesses benefit from Waterfire and there's nothing wrong with them helping to keep the fires burning too!

Monday, November 7, 2011 | Report this
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