City Stages, called "A Birmingham Festival" and "Birmingham's World Class Music Festival," was a downtown 3-day music festival held between 1989 and 2009, usually on Father's Day weekend. For most of its run, City Stages was produced by George McMillan through his non-profit Birmingham Cultural and Heritage Foundation with offices in the Farley Building on 20th Street North.
City Stages was planned as a major cultural event to coincide with the Alabama Reunion. Kathy Tharp of the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau and Marsha Drennen of the Birmingham Music Club hit on the idea of a downtown music festival. They were inspired by successful summer music festivals in New Orleans, Louisiana and Nashville and Chattanooga, Tennessee. After months of brainstorming sessions, the Birmingham Cultural and Heritage Foundation was incorporated in Fall 1988 with McMillan, a former Lieutenant Governor, as president. Kristie McCullough served as festival director for the first decade.
The group secured more than $100,000 in corporate sponsorships and enlisted assistance from the City of Birmingham and Jefferson County Commission to produce the first festival. Commission president John Katopodis lent his assistant, and McMillan's cousin, Joey Sanders, to help with organizing the $241,000 event. The first City Stages opened on the evening of Friday, June 16, 1989 with three stages arranged around downtown's Linn Park.'
The new event was an immediate hit with music lovers and downtown promoters, and itself inspired the creation of similar central-city events in Atlanta and Mobile. After the third City Stages concluded in 1991, there was a major shakeup in the festival. Board members Marsha Drennen and Richard Shoemaker resigned, citing unspecified issues with McMillan's leadership. He assumed tighter control of the festival as it continued to grow in scope and area over the next several years. By 1994 City Stages was spread out over a dozen or more stages occupying several blocks of the city. Numerous organizations participated in helping to program and operate the festival, including the Association of Cajun Music Enthusiasts, which booked and staffed the "Dance-O-Rama" and "Dance Depot" venues.
The festival's growth, however, was accompanied by financial problems and the festival repeatedly reached out for public and private funding to sustain itself. After drastic shortfalls in corporate sales and day tickets in 2009, the festival had amassed over $1 million in debts. Organizers announced they would cease doing business and would be unable to meet their financial obligations.
Between 2001 and 2003 the festival was moved to a weekend in May in hopes of milder weather and more flexibility in securing bookings. Rain and storms each of those years contributed to mounting debts which threatened the continuation of the event. It was returned to its "traditional" Father's Day schedule and the scope was somewhat reduced (while ticket prices crept up incrementally). Talent bookings were pursued more "scientifically" and fund-raisers were instituted as part of a somewhat successful three-year plan to eliminate the festival's debts. The addition of Vines & Waldrep as "title sponsors" in 2004 helped boost the balance sheet. The festival's accumulated debt was reduced to about $60,000 in 2006 before mushrooming to $400,000 after the 20th anniversary City Stages in 2008, an event which enjoyed a record $700,000 in city funding.
In June 2009, days before the festival was to open, organizers asked Birmingham to increase its support from $300,000 to $550,000, citing a 60% drop in corporate ticket sales. Checks to contractors and vendors were bouncing. Lackluster day ticket and beverage sales over the hot weekend forced organizers to announce soon afterward that the foundation was ceasing operations.
The Birmingham Cultural and Heritage Foundation operated as a non-profit with the mission of highlighting the musical culture of Birmingham, bringing people from diverse backgrounds together to foster a sense of community, encouraging economic development, and providing cultural opportunities to the public.
In addition to producing the annual festival, City Stages awarded music scholarships for high school seniors and participated in AmeriCorps' INTUNE program in Smithfield and West End. In 2006 the amount donated to scholarships totaled $3,229.
The foundation paid McMillan an annual salary of $22,500 and contracted with his firm, McMillan Associates to manage food vending and secure corporate sponsorships. McMillan received 15% commission for the sponsorships he cultivated, bringing his total compensation in 2006 to just over $100,000. Festival vice-president Guy McCullough served as marketing director, and his firm, McCullough Advertising was contracted to promote the event until 2009 when Cayenne Creative took over festival marketing.
The Foundation issued a "Statement of Intent to Go Out of Business" immediately following the June 2009 festival. It concluded by claiming "regret" that, "the drastic reduction in revenue from this year's event has made it impossible for the Foundation to satisfy its debts." By that time it had already cleared out its offices.
The Foundation filed for bankruptcy on July 24, 2009. Filings indicated that the festival had debts of between $1 million and $10 million and assets of between $100,000 and $500,000. Creditors named in the filing included the Doobie Brothers ($51,000), the Neville Brothers ($40,500), Alabama Stage Productions ($39,932), Cayenne Creative ($23,215) and Bottletree Catering ($15,327). Over the 12 months prior to filing, McMillan himself received over $80,000 in salary and commission payments while his wife received a salary of more than $32,000. His company, McMillan Associates, received more than $240,000 in payments over the same period. In 2010 eight artists owed a total of $167,800 filed a lawsuit against McMillan, claiming that he had defrauded them.
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- Hendrix, Barry (June 15, 1989) "City Stages: Weekend music festival boasts cornucopia of talent" The Tuscaloosa News
- "Another Official of City Stages Resigns" (August 31, 1991) Assocated Press/The Tuscaloosa News
- Pelfrey, David (May 29, 2008) "Hat in Hand: After 20 years, City Stages is still panhandling." Black & White
- Colurso, Mary (July 18, 2008) "Grousing's not the way to build a better City Stages." The Birmingham News
- Colurso, Mary (January 23, 2009) "Birmingham's City Stages $168,000 in the red for 2008, about $400,000 total." The Birmingham News
- Bryant, Joseph D. (June 16, 2009) "Alabama's City Stages asks Birmingham for $250,000 more." The Birmingham News
- Colurso, Mary (June 26, 2009) "$1 million-plus debt ends Birmingham music festival City Stages after 21 years." The Birmingham News
- Pelfrey, David (June 25, 2009) "Free Speech and City Stages" Black & White
- "City Stages Statement of Intent to Go Out of Business" (June 2009)
- Kwon, Wade (June 25, 2009) "City Stages festival ends its run in debt" Wade on Birmingham
- Gathings, Honora (June 26, 2009) "City Stages Founder Talks About Festival Finances" ABC 33/40
- Colurso, Mary (June 28, 2009) "City Stage's demise after 21 years draws breadth of emotions." The Birmingham News
- DeButts, Jimmy (July 28, 2009) "Bankruptcy filings show City Stages owes at least $1M." Birmingham Business Journal
- Colurso, Mary (March 9, 2010) "City Stages 2009 acts sue for $167,800." The Birmingham News