Friday, September 9, 2011

Travis Tritt Cancels 9/11 Memorial Amid Tornado Relief Scandal

After my brief sojourn to Joplin, Missouri, I found a warm, welcoming community still reeling in the aftermath of the E-5 tornado that devastated much of its town.  Everyone I talked to seemed a bit shell-shocked, recovering not just their homes and belongings, but attempting to recover from the deep emotional scar left in the tornado's wake.

Since May, thousands of people have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to help this community revive.  While the people are hopeful and optimistic for the future, a large portion of the Missouran city is in ruins.  Driving from one side of town to the other, I was struck by the still-standing hollow shells that used to be homes and the twisted, shattered remains of the once-tall trees that used to fill out the lush Joplin landscape.  Now, the path of the tornado looks more like a World War I movie.

So you would think that those thousands of dollars would be going towards rebuilding the town, yes?

Unfortunately, the City of Joplin had other ideas.  Joplin's government, having since the tornado attracted national attention with its city's plight, wanted to put the community "back on the front page" by throwing a country music concert in memoriam of the victims of 9/11.  Travis Tritt, a country star, was hired to headline the festival which would include a ceremonial honoring of the 9/11 National Flag.

What the City didn't really bandy about, of course, was that the event was paid for with tornado relief funds, $60,000 of which was borrowed in an emergency loan at the behest of the City Manager.

A public outcry against the move has erupted in Joplin, and Tritt has now withdrawn his participation from the concert, stating in a note on Facebook:

This afternoon, I was informed that any reimbursement of expenses that would be incurred as a result of my participation would come from monies previously donated for the victims of the tornados that ripped through Joplin in May. I was also told this afternoon that the city of Joplin hoped that the funds would be reimbursed by sponsorship money. However, that hope is not good enough for me.
First of all, it is inappropriate and wrong to take contributions that were given to help victims of the tornados and use that money for any other purpose. I was not aware nor would I have even contemplated accepting the city's offer had I known where the money was coming from.
Consequently, and regrettably, I have chosen not to participate or perform this Sunday in Joplin, Missouri. As an American, I remember all too vividly the way I felt ten years ago on September 11. I will not have any part of any memorial service or remembrance that is not based in the truth or could hurt other victims.
As Tritt stated, the city government hoped to reimburse the funds through sponsorship and increased donations as a result of the concert, but many felt it was an irresponsible use of vital funds intended for use in rebuilding. People are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt, and this is no time to gamble the money on possible sponsorship and donations.

The Joplin Independent, a local publication, appears to disagree with myself and many of the residents of Joplin.  They rather cattily remarked on their update about the concert:
We wonder if the people who spoke up against Tritt's appearance now feel a sense of empowerment.
Of course, the Independent makes no reference in the article as to the reason for the cancelled concert.  Sour grapes?  

One City Council member, Melodee Colbert Kean, was quick to denounce the perceived act of fiscal malfeasance, stating on her Facebook page:
As one council member, I totally agree that this designation of funds from a tornado relief fund should never have been utilized for the cost of securing a talent for Joplin, no matter if it was to be reimbursed or not. There are too many uses that these funds are needed for in helping our affected families. A sincere apology goes out to ALL Joplin residents, and area and state people who have generously donated to different funds to help Joplin.
Joplin has been through enough trial and heartache without additional scandal.  That money was given to help the citizens of Joplin, not to gamble on country concerts capitalizing on 9/11.  I hope with Tritt's cancellation and ensuing furor, the City Manager's office has learned its lesson. 

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