Lights out: Arts center cancels Conjunto Festival

SAN BENITO — The city is known for its conjunto music heritage — epitomized by such legends as Narciso Martinez and Valerio Longoria.

But the music won’t be playing at the annual festival that celebrates the conjunto tradition.

Rogelio Nuñez, founder of the Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center, said the center canceled October’s Conjunto Festival yesterday morning.

Earlier this week, Nuñez told city commissioners that he would cancel the three-day festival if the city did not reduce the $17,365 in fees it wanted to charge to hold the event this year.

The city had planned to continue negotiations with Nuñez yesterday, city spokeswoman Martha McClain stated late yesterday afternoon.

“Negotiations were scheduled to continue today,” McClain stated. “He chose instead to send an email that he was canceling at 7:45 a.m., instead of meeting with city staff as we had planned.”

City Commissioner Esteban Rodriguez said he wants Nuñez to reconsider his decision to cancel the festival.

“I want Mr. Nuñez to come to the table and talk. Let’s negotiate,” Rodriguez said late yesterday afternoon. “At the same time, he has to understand he has to meet us somewhere in the middle.”

Rodriguez described the festival as a popular economic driver.

“It’s a great event. I don’t want it to stop. I myself want the festival to go on,” he said. “It does bring people from all parts of Texas and I understand the nation and they leave their money here.”

Then the city informed the arts center it was reducing its fees to $7,000, Rodriguez said yesterday.

Nuñez said an ordinance states the city charges $200 for use of San Benito Plaza, where the arts center has held its festival for years.

But this year, the city added fees that had previously not been charged.

The city increased the fees to help cover costs associated with the event, including assigning police officers to oversee security, Rodriguez said earlier this week.

The arts center’s decision to cancel the festival came a day after the city issued a press release stating it would consider entering into a partnership or sponsorship with the arts center to operate the festival.

The city was negotiating the use of public land, it stated.

But as part of such an agreement, the arts center would have to present the city with last year’s financial reports, the press release stated.

The press release stated the arts center “promotes the community’s musical heritage and culture to all visitors.”

But it added, “it is unlawful for any organization to utilize public funds or public assets that do not benefit the community.”

The press release also stated the arts center’s events “are proposed to be private events with no accountability to the city of San Benito. That in itself displays a lack of transparency with the utilization of public assets.”

Meanwhile, questions surround the arts center’s future.

For 20 years, the arts center leased the city’s old library building for $1 a year.

Two years ago, the center’s lease on the city- owned building that serves as its headquarters expired.

For 25 years, the Rio Grande Valley’s only conjunto festival has drawn as many as 6,000 fans a year, making it one of San Benito’s biggest events, according to the arts center.

The arts center has drawn international attention, Nuñez has said.

The Conjunto Festival features traditional music showcased by the Smithsonian Institution in its recording of a 1998 concert released in a CD titled Taquachito Nights.

Conjunto Festival

– Founded in 1991

– Held at San Benito Plaza

– Features conjunto music’s pioneers and stars

– The Valley’s only conjunto festival