One way or another, Baltimore is getting its Martin Luther King Jr. parade, Mayor Brandon Scott reiterated Monday.
Appearing on “Midday with Tom Hall” on WYPR radio, Scott said his office has claimed responsibility for putting on the parade, which the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts said last week would not be staged this year.
Facing pressure and criticism from members of the City Council and Baltimore’s arts communities, BOPA — a quasi-governmental organization that bills itself as the the city’s arts council, events center and film office — issued a “clarifying statement” Friday, saying the decision to call off the parade came at the direction of the mayor’s office.
That prompted Scott to issue a late-night call for BOPA’s executive director, Donna Drew Sawyer, to resign or for BOPA’s board to remove her — or Scott would eliminate the group’s city funding in the next budget. Sawyer remained in her position as of late Monday.
Scott, in a surprise move, then tweeted late Sunday that the parade would be held with an anti-violence theme. Missing from the announcement were details including the parade’s size and budget.
“Quite frankly, my office is going to put on the MLK Day parade because BOPA is not doing it,” Scott told Hall in Monday’s interview. “We were told by BOPA that there was not a priority,” he said, adding that he felt King’s legacy could be honored by participation in a National Day of Service and with a parade.
Scott stuck by his demand that BOPA’s board remove Sawyer.
“There have been too many missteps,” he said. “And it’s just now time for them to move on, and we look forward to working with the staff, and new leadership as the board does the right thing at BOPA, to making sure that there is a better relationship but also more alignment with what the residents of Baltimore want.”
But staging a parade is no easy feat: In a letter dated Sunday, City Councilman Eric T. Costello, a fierce critic of BOPA, said a large contingent of residents already had been planning to march Jan. 16 in honor of King, the famed civil rights icon. But the undertaking involves coordinating with the Baltimore City Sheriff’s Office to free up about 20 deputies; hiring additional security to staff the event; and working with agencies including the Baltimore City Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Works to develop a traffic maintenance plan, acquire a stage and arrange for sanitation services and other logistics.
Representatives from BOPA and the sheriff’s office, as well as from the transportation and public works departments, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
BOPA is responsible for organizing, producing and managing promotional events that include the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade as well as other free, citywide events such as Artscape, the Baltimore Book Festival, Light City and Baltimore’s New Year’s Eve Spectacular, according to a copy of the organization’s scope of services agreement with the city. In the event BOPA is unable to fulfill its contractual obligations with the city, it is required to “immediately” contact a representative in the mayor’s office, according to a copy of an amended agreement between Baltimore and BOPA.
It’s unclear why the parade was not set to go on as scheduled this year. Initially, a spokeswoman for Scott told The Banner on Thursday that the decision to cancel the parade was made jointly by BOPA and the mayor’s office. But by Friday evening, the tune had changed, with BOPA and Scott each shifting the blame to the other.
Formed in 2002, BOPA operates with a combination of city funding and private donations and hosts yearly citywide events, festivals and celebrations. Its slowdown of programming since the pandemic hit — including after Scott lifted the pandemic containment measures that prevented large gatherings — has been fiercely criticized by City Hall officials and the city’s arts community. In fiscal year 2023, it received $2.5 million in city general funds.
It’s not clear how many people BOPA employs. In calendar year 2019, it reported a staff of 127, a 25% drop from the year before, according to tax records.
Artscape — the city’s largest festival, and regarded as the largest free U.S. arts festival — was canceled due to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 and also did not happen in 2022. The city gave BOPA $98,000 to operate the festival in 2020 and 2021.
The council’s Ways and Means committee approved a $196,000 cut from the BOPA’s budget in June, promising to restore the money through the city’s supplemental fund should the organization meet their requests. BOPA has yet to do so, according to City Council staff.
The organization also administers grant awards to arts organizations and artists; manages facilities including the historic Cloisters Castle, the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, and the School 33 Art Center; and runs the weekly Baltimore Farmers Market from April through December.
Like other city-based organizations and agencies, BOPA ran into funding and attendance challenges with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Baltimore budget documents. Annual attendance across events hit a high of 1.5 million people in 2018 before dropping to 78,000 in 2020, when most public events were suspended, records show. In 2021, only 108,855 showed up to events despite BOPA’s target of 1.8 million, according to the budget documents.
Meanwhile, despite having a target of hosting eight BOPA-sponsored events in 2021, the organization did not hold any then, according to budget documents. Its events target for 2023 is 44 BOPA-sponsored events.
Tax documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service also paint a portrait of decline for the arts organization during the initial year of the pandemic, the latest year for which such information is available. For the fiscal year ending June 2020, the organization reported a 20% revenue loss as well as substantial reductions in contributions and grants, program service revenue, investment income and other revenue, according to the online tax forms.
Grants, salaries and compensation and other expenses also dropped that year, according to the forms, while its total liabilities grew. But Sawyer, who earned $128,642 the year prior, earned $172,839 in total compensation that year, the records show.
In 2020, the U.S. Small Business Administration approved a $688,555 federal loan for BOPA, with much of it designated for payroll purposes, according to an online Paycheck Protection Program loan database. By July 2021, the loan and its accrued interest had been marked as forgiven.
In 2021, the organization received another federal loan, this time for $619,100. All except for $1 was reported to have gone to payroll, according to the data. By April 2022, the loan and some $7,000 in interest had been forgiven.