Student Group Balks at City’s Charge for Holding Tet Festival

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A Vietnamese student group is facing off with Garden Grove officials over a new requirement by the city that the group pay $75,000 to hold the annual Lunar New Year Tet Festival at Garden Grove Park, which they have hosted since 2002.

At a news conference last week, leaders of the United Vietnamese Student Association Southern California said the $75,000 price tag is unreasonable. They charged the City Council with using the event to raise funds for the proposed Vietnam War Museum of America on Harbor Boulevard, which the students said is a conflict of interest.

An initial draft of the five-year contract requires the group to “donate” $1 per admission or no less than $75,000, to the Vietnam War Museum of America Foundation, a registered nonprofit which the city formed to begin fundraising for the museum.

After the group refused the offer, the city returned a month later with a contract that removes any mention of the museum foundation, but instead requires a $75,000 payment to the city.

The students said the cost is unfair and the provision is a conflict of interest for two members of the council, Mayor Bruce Broadwater and Councilmember Dina Nguyen, who also sit on the museum foundation’s six-member board.

The city declared that neither council member has a financial interest in the project because the foundation does not pay its board members. According to the city, the new cost reflects a broader policy to stop subsidizing festivals events because of recent city budget problems. Event organizers now reimburse the city for the full cost of police and staff hours and for any damage to city property.

“There are two council people that sit on that board, but in no way do they get some financial benefit,” said Community Services Director Kim Huy. “The council felt that … this is a project that would honor the Vietnamese community, so perhaps a group would like to give money to that kind of venture.”

The students and members of the community plan to urge the council at Tuesday’s meeting to reconsider the contract provisions.

A Big Idea, But Few Dollars Raised

The city has invested substantial time and resources toward the museum foundation, which was inspired by Broadwater’s visit to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Plans for the museum are only conceptual so far, because the foundation has raised little cash toward the estimated $50 million required to complete the project, as projected by a $25,000 feasibility study conducted in 2010 and paid for from the council’s contingency fund.

While the foundation is a private nonprofit, it is essentially run by the city, which used a small donation from the association to create the nonprofit in 2011. Staff work on the project is the council’s “donation” to the Foundation, said Deputy City Manager Maria Stipe, although the city does not keep a record of staff time spent supporting the museum.

In 2011, the city also put a $612,500 down payment from its general fund on a $2.45-million vacant auto dealership building on Harbor Boulevard but has not yet set it aside for the museum.

Early next month after a trip to South Korea for a sister city delegation, the council will fly to Hawaii to visit other war memorials and gather information for the museum. The round trip to Korea and Hawaii could cost the city up to $27,000.

A Double Standard?

According to Broadwater, the council initially asked for the funds to go to the museum foundation because Tet festival organizers needed to “put some of that money back into Garden Grove.”

“They are the only festival that has the privilege of charging people to get into the festival. The Strawberry Festival donates 100 percent of its proceeds,” said Broadwater. Three similar events in the city, the Arab-American, Korean and Strawberry festivals, do not charge for admission.

The student association is “the only one that we let make a profit, and it’s a good thing, since we pay [for] their existence through this festival. But we’re not happy where the money goes,” Broadwater said.

But student leaders said their fee doesn’t match what similar festivals pay the city. For example, the four-day Strawberry Festival pays the city up to $30,000 each year in fees compared with the $40,000 to $60,000 that the student association has paid for each of the last five festivals, said Phu Nguyen, a former festival organizer.

In previous years, the students have kept half of event proceeds and donated the remainder to Garden Grove nonprofit groups, which amounted to $86,238 each in 2013, said treasurer Helen Nguyen. In addition to the $75,000 payment to the city, the new contract requires at least 40 percent of the proceeds go to local groups, half of which must be based in Garden Grove.

“We do donate a lot of money back, but [$75,000] is quite large. And over a five-year contract, it would be a lot more,” said Nguyen. “We asked for an itemized [cost breakdown], but they have not gotten back to us on that.”

Broadwater said the group has been uncooperative, despite the city generously allowing it to profit from the event for more than a decade.

“They say the audits cost too much, but it’s something that we do,” said Broadwater. “We’re interested in coming out of it at no cost to [Garden Grove]. We have no problem with letting Westminster have the Tet Festival — they can have it at Mile Square Park — because that gets rid of our problem.”

Another Player Steps In

A proposal by another Vietnamese organization to host the event appeared has fueled speculation online and in Vietnamese-language media that the council might be seeking another organization to host the event.

The group, Trung Tam Van Hoa Hong Bang, is a nonprofit based in Westminster that organizes local Vietnamese-language schools and  conducts a Tet Festival in Rosemead.

Its proposal was on the Garden Grove council’s August 28 agenda, but Broadwater postponed the item, citing the absence of both councilwoman Nguyen and a Trung Tam Hong Bang representative.

According to Huy, the city is still negotiating with the student group. The city has received the second group’s application, but has not yet communicated with it about its proposal, Huy said.

Cang Ngoc Nguyen, a member of Trung Tam Hong Bang’s festival organizing committee, said his organization submitted the proposal of their own accord and that they are not competing to host the event.

“We aren’t fighting the students for the festival. We just want to support them,” said Nguyen. “I can’t say if we will actually host the event. We just want to be ready if the students can’t do it.”

Please contact Thy Vo directly at thyanhvo@gmail.com

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