MOUNT VERNON – In less than three months, the 2019 Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival is scheduled to take place in downtown Mount Vernon. But according to letters obtained by Knox Pages, no local talent has been booked – and the festival’s longtime co-directors, Pat and Sandy Crow, have recently resigned.
Pat Crow announced the couple's resignation in a private email to “Friends of the Festival,” major sponsors, and festival board members (past and present) on April 26. After citing the festival’s growth and success since Pat and Sandy took over as co-directors 21 years ago, the letter details recent changes within the Knox County Convention and Visitors Bureau that Pat says led to their resignation.
Pat Crow, who is employed by the CVB, explained that the CVB is not a sponsor or facilitator of the Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival – rather, it is a “partner, as the CVB has been and is with many activities and events in Knox County.” The Crows ran the festival as a product of Dan Emmett Arts & Music Festival, Inc., and the CVB served as a partner all 21 years.
However, Crow said he "[does] not believe the current CVB board leadership will tolerate our working on the event as in the past,” and questioned whether it would allow the CVB to partner with other festivals around the county as well.
Crow said the management climate at the CVB has turned into a “‘hostile’ work environment in many respects, especially as it relates to the very effective interorganizational partnerships that the CVB has openly and publicly forged over the years.”
He cited as an example a note he received two days prior (April 24) from an unnamed “CVB Board member/county official” who told Crow the CVB “should not be supplying anything to festivals – Dan Emmett, Tomato, or similar venues that is not for our (CVB) exclusive use.”
And with that, the Crows resigned. “Unless that work environment changes,” Pat Crow stated, “we are done as operational managers of the Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival.”
“The event can still be done,” he added, “but I do not see the environment changing in time to initiate the planning for the Festival from our perspective. We are certainly available to discuss this if needed, but I am not hopeful that anything will change in regard to these issues in time.”
Last Friday, two weeks after Crow’s resignation, Mayor Richard Mavis told council members in his customary pre-meeting email that Crow had not booked acts or made other festival arrangements prior to his resignation.
In terms of saving this year’s festival, Crow told Mavis “it is not too late, but if in fact things are to progress for this year, they need to begin in the next couple of weeks.”
Crow told Knox Pages he would not comment further on his decision to resign, as it might impact his employment with the CVB, where he serves as secretary and executive director.
In reference to Crow’s unnamed “CVB Board member/county official,” which he said exemplified the CVB’s change in philosophy when it comes to involvement in county festivals, there are only two board members who also serve as elected county officials – commissioner Bill Pursel and auditor Jonette Curry.
Curry said she first became aware of Crow’s resignation Saturday, when the Mount Vernon News broke the story. She was unaware of the perceived conflict between Crow and the board, and said she was surprised to see the news.
The topic of the CVB’s continued partnership at local festivals had not come up at recent board meetings, Curry said. Crow resigned from the festival after the board’s last meeting, she noted, and the CVB board has not had a meeting to discuss the situation since.
“I’m not sure if it stemmed from an executive meeting that then will be addressed to us at our meeting next week,” Curry said Monday. “I was not aware of it.”
Pursel, on the other hand, addressed Crow’s letter and provided context.
Pursel explained that, since 1990, the CVB’s stated purpose has been “the promotion and publicizing of the County in order to bring the patronage and business of tourists, and cultural, educational, religious, professional, and sports organizations into the County, for the benefit of the citizens of the County and of the business community.”
Since that time, Pursel said, the county commissioners have allocated hotel tax funds to the CVB, to be used for the organization’s stated purpose. While Pursel said the CVB “encourages visitors to attend [the Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival] just as it does all other Knox County venues,” a question was posed April 24 (two days before Crow resigned) that prompted speculation over whether or not the funds were being correctly used.
“A CVB question that has been recently asked is, ‘Is it right for the non-profit Visitors Bureau to be in competition with businesses who supply tables, chairs and tents to make a living?’” Pursel said in an email.
The question implies that the CVB had used taxpayer money to supply tables, tents and chairs for the festival, as opposed to letting a local business profit off of such a service. Pursel connected the question about tables, tents and chairs to Crow’s letter, where he cites a CVB opinion (from the same date, April 24) that the organization “should not be supplying anything to festivals.”
“This a valid question for the CVB to ask,” Pursel said. “I would hope that the community appreciates tough questions that the Knox County Visitors Bureau Board of Directors are asking to be certain that tax dollars are used as intended.”
Crow contested the question in his letter, however, arguing that the Dan Emmett Festival meets the mission statement of the CVB, as something that promotes the county, encourages tourism and boosts the local economy. The festival has a projected economic impact of $500,000 annually in Mount Vernon and Knox County, Crow found in a 2014 study. It attracts thousands to Mount Vernon’s downtown corridor, as nearly 700 performers – mostly local children – present their talent to the world.
When asked if Crow – who had poured two decades worth of time and hard work into growing the festival – quit because of tables, tents and chairs, both parties declined to comment.
Pursel said he would refer any further questions to the CVB Board of Trustees. Crow also declined to comment, once again citing his current employment with the CVB.
While Curry said she knew little about the perceived conflict between Crow and the CVB board, and believed the relationship between the two parties to be positive, she added that administrative changes and communication issues could lay at the core of the situation.
“I just think that the Visitors Bureau, we have new members on the board and I believe that they’re just wanting to structure the board in the right manner, that most boards should be run,” said Curry, who has been a CVB board member for nine of the last ten years. “I think that’s where we’re at right now, it’s just communicating.
“I think it’s just a matter of trying to understand who has what roles and making sure that they’re partaking in their role and not going beyond what the board is supposed to be doing. I mean, everybody has a role in this and I think that that’s probably what they’re trying to get back to, is to make sure that the right people are doing the correct things for the sake of the board.”
Amid the confusion surrounding Crow’s departure, one thing is clear: the Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival, a Knox County tradition since 1988, is now in jeopardy.
While Mavis told council on Monday night that this year’s festival is still up in the air, he said there are a number of people working on making it happen. He added that this year could serve as a transition year for the festival, allowing it to eventually become stronger under new leadership.
"Personally, I hope that we will be able to do something in a transitional state rather than discontinue it," Mavis said of the festival.
Councilman Matt Starr echoed the mayor’s thoughts.
"As a former board chair [of the CVB], I'd like to see it continue this year," Starr said. "I think it's at a moment where it needs to transition into something else."
In a report on the Dan Emmett Festival’s history and impact, which he provided to Knox Pages, Crow gave a detailed account of how the festival began back in 1988. Members of the Knox County Renaissance Foundation took “Dixie Days” and turned it into an organized event. It started off “quite small,” Crow wrote; lead organizer John Vining was quoted as saying “the streets were not even closed” for the event.
But through years of hard work and dedication, the festival has blossomed into what Crow called the “second-most attended event in Knox County, right behind the Knox County Fair.” Each year, around 20,000 flock to downtown Mount Vernon to celebrate music, the arts, and the legacy of Dan Emmett, Knox County’s most iconic hometown hero.
It's a point of community pride, a tradition two generations deep – but its future now hangs in the balance, for reasons still largely unknown.
Knox Pages correspondent Cheryl Splain contributed reporting to this story.