It wasn't clear if the city wanted to mend fences or burn bridges Monday in a bizarre attempt to keep the Kentuck Festival of the Arts from leaving its longtime home in Northport.

As the Thread reported last month, the board of directors at the Kentuck Art Center shocked the community when they announced they were seriously entertaining the idea of leaving their home at Northport's Kentuck Park as negotiations about the 2024 Festival deteriorated.

At the heart of the issue is an agency funding contract the city of Northport wanted Kentuck's leadership to sign as a condition of receiving $68,000 from the city. The contract would have required the Festival to be held in the city of Northport, but not explicitly at Kentuck Park, for the next five years.

That kind of long-term commitment without clear guarantees about the Festival site made Kentuck wary, as did a clause that either party could terminate the agreement with 30 days' notice.

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With an urgent need to begin planning next year's Festival, the board issued a press release to local media announcing they might leave Northport, which set off a social media firestorm.

In their first meeting since the news broke, Northport's five-member city council unanimously approved a single-year agreement that is extremely generous to Kentuck Monday night.

It guarantees the traditional Festival site at Kentuck Park with the same "footprint" and amenities as the 2023 event, promises to mitigate the impact of nearby construction, offers in-kind support for the '24 Festival and provides $80,000 in agency funding this fiscal year - even more than first discussed.

The contract also explicitly says the city will meet with Kentuck representatives in Fall 2024 to discuss a new agreement for the 2025 Festival.

But even the generous terms of the contract may not offset the venom with which it was presented by city attorney Ron Davis, who held no punches during a council meeting Monday night.

He went after Kentuck's executive director Amy Echols and Board President Bobby Bragg directly and called both liars who want to "kidnap" the festival. Frequently referencing a metaphorical marriage, he said leadership at Kentuck are determined to "divorce" Northport and cannot be made to stay.

"When you do a story, the headline matters and I've come up with a few," Davis said. "One is, 'Does Kentuck Want a Divorce? Northport Does Not.' Another one: 'Northport Can't Make Kentuck Stay in Northport But Don't Blame Us If You Want to Leave.'"

The offer from the city comes after an email earlier this month in which Kentuck Executive Director Amy Echols told board members that invitations have come asking Kentuck to move the festival to Trussville, the Birmingham City Walk, the city of Hoover, Shelby County, Bay Minette or Sloss Furnaces.

"Northport motivating us to move may be the best thing that has happened to Kentuck so far," Echols said in the email. "Maybe the most painful, too."

With the single-year contract now on the table, the city feels as if the proverbial ball is back in Kentuck's court - that the Festival can remain in Northport if they are serious about keeping it there.

The Kentuck board is scheduled to meet Tuesday - for updates on the situation as they become available, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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13 of the Top Stories published by the Tuscaloosa Thread during the week of December 4th, 2023. Roll Tide!

Gallery Credit: (Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)

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