great heart festival

Toronto still struggles to figure out this Music City idea

If learning from your mistakes is the best form of pedagogy, Toronto might just figure out this whole Music City idea in the long run, but there's a ways to go.

The latest in a long line of incidents marked by red tape and a dated bylaw system involves acoustic music festival Great Heart, the organizers of which have been forced to jump through a tiring number of hoops (no, not those ones) to bring their event back to Trinity Bellwoods Park for a sixth year.

It would be too boring to recite all the various bylaw issues that the festival has encountered, but the key problem that Great Heart has faced this year is the requirement that it operate with a special events permit, which along with related expenses (e.g. insurance and noise exemption fees) comes with a $2500 price tag -- a tall order for a festival that generates zero revenue.

Over and above the money, to get a special events permit of this sort, an organization must be officially registered as a not-for-profit charity, which might be something Great Heart explores in the future, but isn't realistic given that the festival only learned that it could not operate on the easier-to-acquire social gatherings permit in early April.

With the help of Music Sector Development Officer Mike Tanner, Great Heart was able to team with the TRANZAC to satisfy the not-for-profit requirement, but not before incurring more costs. Organizers have started an Indiegogo campaign to help finance the red tape dance, but seem most annoyed at the permit process is so murky and complicated.

On paper, the festival doesn't even seem like it should require a special events permit. There's no stage or speakers or food vendors. While the attendance numbers are way higher than your typical picnic, co-organizer Bobby Kimberley points out that social gatherings licences have ben issued for events with up to 2,000 people.

"Our event is essentially the equivalent of showing up to the park with your guitar, and singing 'Koombaya' with your friends in a semi-circle," Kimberley explains. "The only difference is that we encourage people to come and watch. That seems to be all of the difference, as we can't really figure out why else we're getting the run-around."

More bizarre is that it seems like everyone who understands the nature of this acoustic festival has been willing to help the organizers navigate the red tape, from the music office to Councillor Mike Layton to Mayor John Tory, who recently stepped in and lowered the fee that Great Heart will have to pay for its permit.

In other words, it seems like there's the will on the part of individuals at city hall to accommodate these events, but the bylaw systems are in desperate need of an update, and the manner of communication between departments is woefully bad. That's a troubling combination.

Tory says that the city will use Great Heart as a learning example, but his fix of cutting the permit fee also smells like some quick and dirty PR. Yes, it's nice to see the mayor taking an interest in helping out a grassroots music organization, but meaningful change needs to come in the form of bylaw reform and a collective show that Toronto is open to events like Great Heart.

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