August 18th, 2011
04:00 AM ET
By Andy Rose, CNN
(CNN)–You don't get to Wilmore, Kentucky, by accident. For organizers of the Ichthus Festival, that's part of the problem.
The country's oldest Christian music festival just finished its 42nd year, but there's no guarantee of a 43rd.
"What happens in August and September will determine where we go and how we look at 2012," Ichthus Ministries CEO Mark Vermilion said.
For the past six years, the concert series has been losing money. Ichthus Ministries tried laying off staff and cutting expenses to the bone to close the gap, but now it says it has no choice but to take a painful step: sell the 110-acre festival site at a time when the real estate market is as soft as a muddy mosh pit.
Not only could it use the infusion of cash, it simply can't afford anymore to pay the mortgage, insurance and maintenance on the property.
"It's not our desire to move from the land," Vermilion says. "It doesn't make sense for us to own the land when we're using it one month out of the year."
If a four-day festival full of teens and twentysomethings camping out in a rural field reminds you of Woodstock, it's no coincidence. Ichthus began in 1970 when a seminary professor more than 700 miles from Max Yasgur's farm decided Christians needed their own version of the seminal event.
Keep the rock 'n' roll, maybe, but lose the sex and drugs. Bob Lyon and some students set up the stage in a field near their classes. Four decades later, Vermilion acknowledges things have changed.
"There are a lot more music events than there used to be," he says. "One-day festivals have popped up in local communities. With gas prices, it's hard for people to travel the distances they used to."
One of those one-day events takes place only 15 miles from Wilmore. The 12-year-old Quest Community Church started Questapalooza in 2006. It is already drawing major Christian acts like Third Day.
"What started out as more of a big party in the backyard has turned into a 10,000-plus-person event," says Quest Assistant Pastor Justin McCarty.
The seven-hour Questapalooza looks more like a state fair than a "free love" concert, drawing suburban families and church newcomers who don't have the interest or cash to camp out far from home. McCarty says they don't see themselves as competition.
"We love Ichthus," he says. "We're part of the same team. We're on each other's side."
All music events are in the same boat when it comes to responding to the economy. The country's largest secular concert promoter, Live Nation, had to resort to deep discounting during a downturn last year. Questapalooza cut the cost of its tickets dramatically in 2010 as part of a "fifth anniversary celebration." Prices are back up this year, but not to their peaks.
"We've really done everything that we can to make it as affordable as possible," McCarty said.
To respond to changing times, Ichthus now offers some one-day tickets. Attendance has stabilized but is still well off of its peak of 25,000. And actual price cutting is not something that's done easily for an organization that's already running an operating deficit of nearly a quarter-million dollars, according to the most recent report from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Instead, the ministry is now reaching out for direct donations for the first time, hoping that will provide the financial cushion to bring ticket prices down.
Vermilion says Ichthus has had a few discussions with people interested in buying its land. Despite cutting the asking price to below a million dollars, there are only nibbles so far. And that puts in serious doubt whether Ichthus can find its ideal buyer - one who would lease the property back to Ichthus for one month a year for the festival instead of forcing it to find a new venue away from Wilmore, population 6,000.
"More than 40 years of history gives you an identity in an area," he says. "I don't think there's anybody who wants to see us leave."
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