Washington, D.C.’s SXSW initiative launched with a promising start earlier this month, with a bash at one of the newest spots in town that brought together artists, technologists and musicians.
The following day, the Washington Post reported that the program, called WeDC, would cost nearly half a million dollars. Soon, it emerged that the project was facing significant cuts — up to $150,000, according to the Post — from the administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser, who took office in January.
"We also want to assess what the benefits are of a trip of this magnitude that carries this kind of a price tag."
According to to the Washington, DC Economic Partnership, the nonprofit organizing the program, the District can’t back out from the centerpiece of the WeDC campaign: the leasing of a restaurant space right across the street from the Austin Convention Center. The “WE DC House” would have hosted showcases, meetups and patio parties from March 13-17.
Now, many of those activities are being reconsidered, officials tell Technical.ly DC.
The District is reviewing every line budget item on the campaign’s budget “with a fine-tooth comb,” said Joaquin McPeek, a spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. He said a decision had not been made yet as to the amount of the cuts. It’s not clear either whether Bowser will attend the festival in Austin, as her predecessor Vincent Gray had done in the past.
“There were a lot of decisions made by the prior administration,” he said, adding that the District’s budget for fiscal year 2015 has not been finalized. The District is now conducting a “top-to-bottom review across the board of the portfolio that was give to us.”
“We have an opportunity to do something within that space, but details are still being discussed,” said McPeek. “We also want to assess what the benefits are of a trip of this magnitude that carries this kind of a price tag.”
He added that despite the cuts, the budget would still be larger than in previous years. In 2014, the District spent $168,672 on its SXSW initiative, according to the Washington Post. In 2013, it spent $50,000.
"We're cutting down drastically on our guerrilla marketing."
The WDCEP is now scrambling to adjust the program to something smaller than anticipated.
“We’re being very creative,” said Julie Weber, the marketing director. “We’re cutting down drastically on our guerrilla marketing.”
The posters and stickers to be spread all around the city, as well as other advertising, marketing and travel costs, are all on the chopping block, she said.
The initiative’s budget increase this year would have gone to supporting artists and musicians from the District, as well as the tech economy, she said. “Bringing all these communities together would really represent what D.C. is all about at SXSW.” Now, there will be less money for parties on the patio with local musicians.
Still, as a 2015 SXSW partner, the District will be featuring five local bands at an official SXSW DC Music Showcase on the festival’s dime, said Tiffany Thacker, WDCEP’s director for business attraction, technology and innovation. She added that “everything we do in the house this year will be on the official schedule.” The WDCEP will also run a Live Free in DC competition, which will offer one startup presenting at SXSW the opportunity to be hosted in the District for three months.
Those are all initiatives the WDCEP felt would help make the District more competitive in a very competitive festival. “It’s a very large and vast community down there of tech companies, large partners like Google, Microsoft, people that we would love to see engage more in the tech community,” said Weber.
Still, whether that exposure is worth the steep price tag is being very much debated in District political and economic development circles as we speak.
Are you a local technologists with opinions on the WeDC initiative? Let us know. To weigh in, please email this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.