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Huge Timmins festival has taxpayers nervous

Ever since the announcement was made at a council meeting of the city's plan for a major festival, emotions have been running high.
sharp, keith promoter 2016
Head of Word Travels Fast Consulting Keith Sharp. Photo courtesy of Dundurn Press.

With Mattawa Voyageur Days bleeding red ink, and North Bay's Summer in the Park walking a financial tightrope, Timmins has decided to go all-in next summer with a huge Canada Day music and fireworks festival.

Timmins announced on Thursday that it has entered into an agreement with Word Travels Fast Consulting to handle all of the bookings for the city's eight-day $3.5 million budget fireworks and music festival next summer. 

The name listed as the head of the organization is Keith Sharp.

"We're set to be the entertainment link for the whole thing," he said.

Sharp was born in Manchester, England, but did attend high school in Elliot Lake. He is a former sportswriter at the Calgary Herald. He launched the successful rock magazine 'Music Express' in 1978. He currently lives and works in Toronto. 

"When the whole industry sort of collapsed, we switched to digital, and one of the things, as an offshoot, working with Canadian bands as long as we have been, we got to know everybody. We have an offshoot company called Word Travels Fast Consulting. Basically, we do consulting for festivals and others looking to book artists. In this capacity, we've been working with Steven Black," said Sharp.

People are curious as to how the whole idea of an eight-day festival came together. So who approached who?

"You have to understand there's going to be a press conference where they announce the whole thing, so I can't really speak to that. What I can tell you is that we've been working with Guy Lamarche (Director of Tourism Timmins). We did this year's kayak festival, we booked Honeymoon Suite and Helix and the bands, and we were talking about next year. With of course it being the 150th anniversary, and that Timmins wanted to do something big. But again the biggest problem is, every city, town, village, and whistle stop in the country is going to be doing something on that day. 

The big problem with Timmins is, for the regular bands is the route thing, right? Its not on their regular route, so you've got to kind of do something special to get people there.

So we were just talking about the problems, and then I came up with a couple of ideas, and those ideas were transferred over to Steven (Black) and Steven was talking about the July 1st show that we were working on. Then he had this fireworks festival. We said okay, if we're going to do this July 1st show, what about having one through the entire week? So we started planning bands from June 24 through to July 1" he said.

Sharp said he was waiting on one more call to complete the entire schedule. He said the next step is to have all of the contracts, for all the musical acts, go to Black for approval, and for the city to then send out the deposits to each act.

"We're not legally allowed to make any announcement before the deposits are in place," he said. "It is in the contractual agreement for the bands. We're almost there."

Sharp predicted the announcement will be made 'sometime in the next two weeks or so' as he believes the city doesn't want to go into December without having tickets for sale.

Ever since the announcement was made at a council meeting of the city's plan for a major festival, emotions have been running high. Many are ecstatic about the potential for the city to showcase itself, while many others feel that the financial risk to taxpayers is a major concern. Mayor Steve Black has all but promised that the event will make a profit.

Will the artists on the festival lineup entice people from all over the region and beyond?

"Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah. The big thing that you have to consider is the main show July 1st, the artist that I know I've confirmed, will sell out between 25 and 28 thousand people. They will," said Sharp.

If his math is correct, the entire $3.5 million dollar up front investment by the City of Timmins would be covered, and then some, by the Canada Day show alone.

"Once we go public with this show, it's probably going to take less than a day to sell out the entire show. If you do the math, certainly you're sitting on over $4 million dollars in escrow. The point which I think Steve (Black) is selling to the council, and which we initially sold to Steve was, yes you'll be sitting on an amount of money that will certainly cover your festival. There's less of a risk per day. I admit, I don't anticipate 20,000 people every day but there's going to be certain shows that are going to appeal to certain people."

Sharp said also Ron Sakamoto is involved. A fact yet to be mentioned by anyone. 

Sakamoto has over 40 years of producing live music events. He was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014.

"His involvement alone has attracted the talent for the show. It's not just Steven (Black) and his people in Timmins saying 'Hey we want to put on a concert on'. You've got some major players coming in to make this thing work. Ron has already been up to Timmins to check out the site in Hollinger Park. He was the guy who originally put on the Shania Twain concert (in 1999) so he knows this is not some fly-by-night operation, this is big, and why it's taken as long as it has - because of the planning that has gone into it," he said.

"This is going to be the single biggest cultural event that the city of Timmins has ever seen. And that's not hype, that's just a fact."

Sharp said he is somewhat aware of the controversy surrounding the event.

"Talking to Steve, I know there's been some complaints from some taxpayer's association person, and that they're getting all hot-to-trot. All I can say is, and I really can't say too much more, is that once this festival plays out, and once the City of Timmins sees how much revenue its going to generate, any resistance to this idea will be blown out of the water."

Sharp said its the city wanting to 'move forward' instead of a doing a 'regular, local thing and just be like everyone else'.

"I would honestly say that the Mayor of Timmins, Steven, has shown a lot of courage. He had to basically come to us and say 'look I'll tell you what, yeah there's X amount of money at risk up front.' But in reality once those tickets go on sale, let's just say the middle of November, within a day or two, I am assured that there will be $4 million dollars sitting in a bank account. I can tell you that once the word gets out, you will have no problem pulling 25 to 28 thousand people. No problem at all."

Sharp said the entire festival is based on the fact that the Canada Day show will pull a huge crowd.

"The rest of it is kind of a spin-off from it, and again, you've got the fireworks."

He said that Word Travels Fast Consulting has been in operation for about two years.

"Because we have a thorough knowledge of the music industry, and what bands work in what situations, we can actually put these kinds of festivals together, which is what this company is now doing, as an aside to Music Express." 

After providing what the budget would be, Sharp said the city was then presented with a 'shopping list' of the fees for various artists.

"Some of them made sense, and some of them didn't make sense. We know what the actual value of a band is, whereas if 'Joe Blow' calls up and says I want to book so-and-so, you know you're going to get an inflated figure. We were able to negotiate a good situation, and Ron Sakamoto got involved because he's well known within the agencies, so he was kind of like the credibility factor you know."

So who actually made the final call as to which artists to book?

"Every artist on the bill has been approved by Steven Black. Basically we said 'well Steve, what do you want?' We make suggestions," said Sharp.

The budget as presented to council by Black on October 3, had $1 million allotted for the Canada Day entertainment. Sharp said on that day, there will be two major bands, one secondary band, and one possible local band.

He said there will be a professional stage set up in Hollinger Park for the entire week, which will be set up by non-local workers being flown in. It will be the "full major concert experience" according to Sharp.

Although he said he "kind of understands its a political situation," he strongly feels that the naysayers will be placated in short order.

"Do you book a band, or do you pave Main Street? But at the same time, this is a great opportunity for the city of Timmins to 'A' - put themselves on the musical map, but also to generate some serious money. That's the bottom line. If there was no opportunity to make money, they wouldn't be doing it."