AFRAM scholarships in jeopardy

Fund-raising festival may face $25,000 loss

August 24, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Reeling from poor attendance and a rift among its volunteer organizers, the city's largest ethnic festival may not be able to provide the college scholarships it was to fund in the coming year.

The annual AFRAM Expo, a three-day event celebrating African-American culture, attracted only about 11,000 paid visitors to Pimlico Race Track earlier this month, said James Mango, the track's chief operating officer.

That's a tenth of the figure the organization's volunteer steering committee had hoped for and a fraction of last year's paid attendance, which approached 70,000, said Lloyd Mitchner, who recently resigned as executive director of AFRAM Expo Inc., the nonprofit organization that runs AFRAM.

Though a final accounting has not been done, Norman Ross, the organization's acting executive director, said he feared the festival could end up $25,000 in the red.

But Beverly Carter, the AFRAM board's chairwoman, disputed that figure. She said she still hopes that the festival will break even and be able to fund some scholarships.

More important than this year's numbers, Carter said, are fundamental changes that the board has been making to improve fund raising and to potentially expand the scholarship program. Scholarships of $500 to $2,500 typically go to 10 to 12 high school seniors from around the city, Ross said.

"There's a limited amount in the scholarship fund," said Carter, who is chief executive assistant to Stuart O. Simms, state secretary of public safety and correctional services. "We want to raise those scholarship levels. That's what we are there for."

Mitchner said he resigned as executive director three weeks before this year's festival, in part because he could tell it was in trouble.

Among his concerns: Late pleas for corporate sponsorships meant the organization had less in hand than it usually did so close to the festival. Pimlico wasn't as convenient to bus lines as Mondawmin Mall, where the festival was held in 1998, and the track placed restrictions on the hours that organizers could set up beforehand.

Not so far in the background is a festering dispute between the group's board and members of its steering committee, who until this year organized the event with the executive director.

Carter, in her first year as chairwoman, decided to run many things normally left to the executive director and steering committee, Mitchner said.

"I think everyone was trying to do what was best for AFRAM," Mitchner said. "It just got so confusing. It just became, `Who is doing what?' "

Carter said she took over more duties because the festival's fund-raising potential hadn't been fully tapped and because past events were not as well organized as they could have been. She said requests for corporations to pledge money went out later than usual because she wanted to develop professional marketing packages.

In addition, a Web site has been established and has drawn national attention, Carter said.

The board also added several new fund-raising events, putting on a crab feast in June and a golf tournament in July, and planning an art and jazz festival for October.

Carter said she believes that the golf tournament made money. But at least one of the new events did not fare well. Financial reports are incomplete, but the crab feast drew only about 500 people -- a quarter of the number expected.

"Partially it was our fault," Carter said. "It was a new event."

Some who provided services at the main AFRAM festival are still waiting to be paid. And others who sold items there are bewailing a poor showing.

"This was the worst AFRAM that I've ever been in," said Ed Dudley, who has sold clothing from his Baltimore store, African American Fashions, at the festival for the past eight years. Dudley said he made less than half his usual take.

He said he and other vendors were preparing a petition to protest the site of the event and the way it was handled.

The local rhythm and blues group BADD is awaiting a check for its AFRAM performance, said Margaret Dunn, BADD's acting manager. "I really was surprised," Dunn said. "We were just put on hold. Last year, we got paid that day." Dunn declined to divulge the amount of money the group is owed.

Ross, the retired director of the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center and one of the founders of AFRAM 23 years ago, said he hopes the strain between the board and steering committee can be resolved at a meeting next month.

"It should be a lesson that there should be clear understandings," he said. "Hopefully, we will not have to go through this again."

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