An iconic annual festival in Waltham celebrating the Steampunk subculture was canceled this year, organizers say, because the event, despite being billed as a fund-raiser, lost money the past three years.
The festival, which was held over the Mother’s Day weekend, transformed Waltham’s downtown into a city of Steampunk, an alternative retro-futuristic movement that envisions modern-day and industrial-era technology with a Victorian-era aesthetic.
The festival was conceived as a fund-raiser for the nonprofit Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, said Doug Waybright, who sits on the museum’s board and also serves as vice president of the Downtown Waltham Partnership’s executive board. But the museum lost thousands of dollars holding it the past three years, and only broke even in its inaugural year, in 2010.
“The event is a great thing for the downtown and for the Charles River Museum, but unfortunately, the Steampunk festival always cost the museum money,” he said.
Waybright said the Downtown Waltham Partnership is establishing a committee dedicated to planning the event, and will revisit its economic structure. The festival is scheduled to return next year, he said.
The festival drew crowds to Waltham’s downtown for each installment. Last year, officials estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 fans flocked to the area around Moody and Main streets, where the streetscape was transformed into a steampunk city.
Women donned long, puffy dresses with corsets and fascinators, and men wore period trousers and intricate technological garb on their arms, legs, or backs. Brass aviator goggles, a staple accessory of the movement, could be spotted in every direction.
The vast majority of steampunkers would travel from around New England — and some from even more distant parts of the country — to take part in the weekend’s eclectic mix of music, street performances, specialty vendors, and topical displays at the museum. The event helped boost the local economy, especially the dozens of restaurants and shops along Moody and Main streets, business owners said.
“Steampunk did a lot for the downtown businesses,” Waybright said. “These people would come to Waltham, and they would go out and spend money.”
Nick Pappas, owner of Lizzy’s Ice Cream, said he saw his sales spike up to 30 percent during the festival.
“I definitely notice that it increases business significantly,” Pappas said.
But after a new museum executive director and museum board members pored over the nonprofit’s finances this year, they found themselves hard-pressed to justify holding the event as it is. Last year, even though the museum took in about $40,000 from the event, it cost the institution about $46,000, with the difference coming out of its $300,000 budget, Waybright said. He said that previous years registered similar shortfalls.
Among the expenses, Waybright said, are staffing, safety, and emergency personnel, insurance, advertising, sound setups, lodging for performers, and portable bathrooms.
“Steampunk always cost the museum money, and last year, it was at such a size that the risk was nearly $50,000,” Waybright said. “If it had rained,” he said, “we would have lost another $10,000.”
Officials from the Downtown Waltham Partnership, a nonprofit organization of Waltham citizens and business owners, will likely be taking over responsibility for the event, Waybright said.
He said the festival is scheduled to be held next year, but planning for the event while also exploring how to make it financially viable proved too difficult a task to pull together this spring. The organization considered holding the festival this fall instead, but determined that scheduled improvements to the downtown sidewalks and streetscape, coupled with the slated construction of various new residential developments this summer, would have interfered, Waybright said.
Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy has been a supporter of the festival, working with organizers to open City Hall for use during the weekend event. However, McCarthy said, she thought it was reasonable for organizers to postpone it until next year.
“It’s a wonderful festival, but with the downtown improvements, I understand their decision,” she said.
Waybright said the committee will likely pursue corporate sponsorship — an avenue that the museum did not take, he said — and consider dropping the practice of selling admission passes, which allow the buyers to attend certain events.