The Castro Street Fair Almost Died

But its board managed to put it on the path to sustainability for 2017 and beyond.

(Photo by Geof Teague)

For years, three large outdoor events anchored LGBT culture in the Castro: Pink Saturday, Halloween, and the Castro Street Fair. Although hordes of revelers still clog Castro Street every Oct. 31, the city stopped sanctioning Halloween after a gunman injured nine people in 2006. Although Pink Saturday witnessed a murder in 2010, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence kept that event going for several more years, until it grew too large for the nonprofit to oversee security and guarantee crowd safety. (The Sisters revived it in time for Pride 2016, as a smaller event in SoMa.)

The Castro Street Fair — which Harvey Milk began in the mid-1970s — has never been marred by violence, however. Traditionally held on the first Sunday in October, one week after the much-larger Folsom Street Fair, it’s a free event that asks for a $5 to $10 donation at the gate, almost all of which goes back to nonprofit beneficiaries. Its footprint is smaller in size than many other neighborhood fairs, plus the demographics of the 94114 ZIP code skew older — which means youth-oriented corporate sponsors that often help underwrite large public events express less interest. For the past few years, rising production costs and falling revenue pushed the fair into the red.

Then, in 2016, something truly peculiar happened: It rained early in the afternoon, driving down gate donations and beverage sales. Overall receipts fell by a significant margin, to where the board of directors was unsure if they could guarantee sufficient funding to produce the 2017 fair.

“We’d been having some issues for a few years, in terms of maintaining financial viability, and this year was the most dire yet,” says board treasurer Jon Murray.

The possibility that the fair might end weighed heavily on him.

“Beneficiary groups that we work with rely on the funds that we generate the day of,” Murray says. “But it looks like we’ve been able to pull back from the brink a little bit, and now we’re looking to radically transform things so that we can improve and continue the fair forward in a way that we will never have to worry about this situation again.”

Pledges from the city totaling $15,000, largely through the Arts Commission and the Mayor’s Office of Workforce and Economic Development, will help plug the gap. (State Sen. Scott Wiener, who represented the Castro on the Board of Supervisors at the time, was instrumental in securing the funds.) But, Murray stresses, that dollar amount constitutes a one-time payment and not an ongoing commitment — and it’s tied to the organization demonstrating a pathway to sustainability. In other words, the Castro Street Fair got a promise to help pull it back from a bad year — but the organizers now have to prove they can make it on their own.

Calling 2016 a “nightmare scenario,” executive director Fred Lopez is confident that it will.

“We’re going to hire a sponsorship consultant to start pounding the pavement to get sponsorships in the door,” he says, adding, “If we start selling booths now, we’ll have some revenue coming in, to make sure production moves along.”

They almost didn’t get to this point.

A proposal to shelve the 2017 fair to focus on 2018 seems off the table for now — although it is possible that, beginning in 2018, the Castro Street Fair might no longer take place in October, against the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park.

“That’s a free event, and they don’t ask for any sort of donations,” Murray says. “Obviously, it has a huge draw all weekend. Having to compete with that when we’re only one day is tough.”

But moving the date is not without risks, either, as Lopez acknowledges.

“Most everybody knows that taking a year off would destroy a lot of momentum, and it would be difficult to sell a fair that’s a year and a half out,” he says. “It depends on the kind of leadership that emerges.”

The 10-member board was scheduled to hold elections for its four-member executive committee at its Jan. 12 meeting, but postponed the vote until February. It’s not expected to be contentious, but however things shake out, Murray and Lopez agree that increased community participation would be a boon to the fair’s continued success. As it stands now, Lopez says the fair has solid support.

“People are acknowledging that the fair is important,” he says. “It’s a community institution that deserves attention, and we have a dedicated board that’s committed to making sure that the fair continues — even through a tough time.”

Consequently, Lopez was able to cut checks totaling more than $38,000, to distribute among community beneficiaries for the 2016 cycle. That includes donations to the Castro Merchants Group to purchase rainbow flags for Harvey Milk Plaza and to more than 20 other institutions, including the S.F. Gay Men’s Chorus and the sobriety and recovery nonprofit Castro Country Club. For all the anxiety, this figure rep- resents only a small drop from 2015’s disbursement of $45,301, he says.

Still, hard decisions remain, and the final shape of the 2017 Castro Street Fair has yet to be determined. It might look quite different from how it did in the past.

“Almost all, if not all, of the fair will change,” Lopez says. “We’re basically going to look at this is as a new beginning. … We’ve been given this lifeline to make an event that reflects the diverse nature of the neighborhood but also has a sustainable model in mind, given the distinct challenges of producing an outdoor event in San Francisco now — as opposed to 43 years ago, when Harvey Milk did it.”

“We’re excited to be able to re-envision the fair,” he adds.

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