For two decades, Adams Morgan Day served as D.C.’s harvest festival: a rite of fall that signaled the end of summer humidity and the return of the five-day work week. The event began in the late ’70s as a fundraiser for community nonprofits and an opportunity to showcase neighborhood unity amid its vast socioeconomic diversity. In its late-’80s heyday, Adams Morgan Day was called the largest street festival on the East Coastcomplete with street vendors, hordes of suburbanites, and beer trucks lining 18th Street NW.
The festival’s harmonious origins have escaped its hosts as of late, though: In recent years, infighting among neighborhood business leaders and event planners left District residents wondering up to the last minute whether the festival would happen at all. Last year, for the first time in its 21-year history, it didn’t (“Adams Morgan D-Day,” 8/28/98).
Following the blackout, Al Jirikowic, owner of the Adams Morgan bar Chief Ike’s Mambo Room, spearheaded a business effort to make sure 1999 wouldn’t be a repeat. In January, he and other members of the Adams Morgan Business & Professional Association assembled a festival committeewhich, he believed, would deliver a comprehensive, old-school proposal for Adams Morgan Day 1999 to the local advisory neighborhood commission (ANC).
A few weeks after the committee’s start-up, Western Public Interest, a for-profit events-planning company, offered to help. Neighbor and now ANC commissioner Peter Schott introduced Jirikowic and fellow committee members to Western representatives, who said they would lend a hand in planning the event for a small commission. Jirikowic agreed to let the company’s reps sit in on committee meetings.
But Jirikowic now says Western’s gift turned out to be a Trojan horse: He claims the company attended the business committee’s planning sessions pretending to help, all the while plotting its own pitch to the ANC. Last month, Jirikowic and other members of the business committee pulled out of Adams Morgan Day, threatening to stage their own festival. “We worked very hard with the Western group, who then, in turn, betrayed us by organizing against us, after I invited them into my own house and drank with them,” says Jirikowic.
At a neighborhood meeting in mid-April, Western representatives surprised business leaders when they pushed a separate proposal for Adams Morgan Day. “What we had thought was an update to the ANC on a joint proposal turned into an opportunity to pitch their own idea,” recalls the Rev. Jim Wilder, an Adams Morgan minister who served as treasurer of the business community’s planning committee.
Western proposed a two-day festival that would coincide with the Sept. 18 opening of the nearby Columbia Heights Metro station. Adams Morgan business leaders thought the hybrid idea would overwhelm the festival, which they had envisioned as a one-day event. Small-business owners worried that Western’s plan to close 18th Street that Saturdaya departure from the strictly Sunday closings of past festivalswould discourage regular business traffic. And shopkeepers and neighborhood nonprofits alike expressed shock over the company’s plan to rake in 30 percent to 50 percent of the festival’s profits as commission.
At the next ANC meeting, Jirikowic showed up just long enough to circulate a letter saying local business leaders would no longer participate in the festival-planning process. That move, of course, left Western as the only game in town. The ANC passed a resolution supporting Western’s plan by a narrow 4-3 margin. The deciding vote, Jirikowic and others are quick to point out, came from Schott, who had previously served as a paid consultant for the company. Schott had recused himself from an earlier ANC vote on Western’s work with the neighborhood.
Schott says he “never got a penny” from Western for work on the Adams Morgan Day festival. He admits that he signed a contract with Western in 1997, but says he received no salary. As the company’s former director of government relations, Schott says he simply put nonprofits and other groups in touch with Western and would occasionally receive a small commission for his efforts. He estimates he’s made about $400 total through all of his projects.
Western Managing Director Tom Oliver backs up Schott’s assertion and adds that his company never plotted against Jirikowic’s group. “If the business association had received the nod from the ANC, we would have been happy to work with them,” he says.
Oliver says Western hopes to create a festival that “reflects all components of the community.” Western and other Adams Morgan neighbors are creating a steering committee to head up planning and to fine-tune details. Oliver says he’s met with District officials to confirm the date of the event, but he still has to come up with enough signatures of consent from neighbors and business owners to close down 18th Street.
Western also has to amass funds for the roughly $100,000 budget for the eventa task made much harder by the exit of business leaders like Jirikowic. Getting corporate sponsorship so late in the game could be difficult, says Oliver, who adds that his company may have to rely on small donations from still-friendly companies and regular citizens. Western is still negotiating its commission with the ANC, Oliver says.
For now, it looks as if planning is on course. But Jirikowic and neighborhood activist Pat Patrick are now threatening to hold a rival festival this fall or next spring. “This is not an effort to cry over spilled milk because the [Adams Morgan Professional & Business Association] is not getting it,” says Patrick, who organized Adams Morgan Day in the mid-’80s. “It has to do with how we perceive them….We see them as greedy outsiders coming in here to rape our community. And we’re not going to tolerate it.” CP