News

Festival is a bust for parks district

District won’t see expected share of revenues from event

Revenues for the first Island Festival were far below earlier estimates for the three-day concert series, and officials from the South Whidbey parks district said they aren’t expecting to see an influx of money from the event.

The festival, a for-profit venture held in late July on public land at Community Park, did not pull in more than $50,000 in its inaugural year, district officials said.

Concert promoters had earlier told the district that gross revenues in the first year of the festival would top $136,000.

Although organizers of the event have not yet provided a long-overdue financial report on festival revenues, parks district commissioners said they weren’t expecting to collect a portion of ticket sales or vendor fees.

Island Festival organizers paid the district a $5,000 deposit before the festival.

But after spending $3,900 to repair park land damaged by the concert series, the district said the $5,000 deposit would likely be more than the district’s share of gross revenues — 10 percent of gross revenues for ticket sales and vendor fees.

“We’re clear with Island Festival on all financial arrangements,” said Terri Arnold, director of the South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District.

Arnold said the event brought in “substantially less” than $50,000. She said festival organizer Jacob Mosler was still working with his accountant on festival finances.

Arnold said district employees observed less than 300 people at the event.

“For our records, we know we’ve gotten what we’re going to get out of him,” she said.

The parks district will have little, financially, to show for hosting the event, which meant the complete closure of Community Park and the sports complex to the public for three days. The event also subjected the district to criticism after commissioners received multiple complaints about noise, drugs and alcohol at the festival.

While some of the complaints were exaggerated — one neighbor likened the festival to the “Woodstock of the West” — district commissioners took the concerns to heart and imposed new, restrictive conditions for any future Island Festival at their meeting two weeks ago.

Those concerns were outlined in a letter sent Friday to festival promoters Mosler, Drew Elliott and Martha Smith.

The restrictions included a ban on alcohol and camping, a 10 p.m. noise curfew and the requirement to keep the playground, skateboard park and picnic shelter open at Community Park during next year’s festival.

Commissioner Allison Tapert said she hopes the new rules are not a deal-breaker for the organizers.

“But I can see how it would change the festival drastically,” she said.

Some changes are absolutely necessary, Tapert said.

“The one mistake was definitely the alcohol,” she said.

The organizers added the request late in the game and Tapert regretted that there wasn’t more time for public input on such an important decision.

“The organizers came more or less at the eleventh hour with the alcohol policy change,” she said.

Mosler, the main promoter of the event, did not attend the commissioners’ last meeting where the new restrictions were approved. He reportedly was in New Jersey working on a motion picture.

Mosler declined to comment on the festival or the parks district Tuesday.

Years in the making

Along with Drew Elliott, Mosler came up with the idea for Island Festival in 1996. The pair spent years visiting hundreds of festivals, working and volunteering at some, to see how such events were put together.

Development of the Island Festival began in 2001, according to parks district records. Mosler and Elliott said they wanted to pattern Island Festival after other music- and art-based festivals in the West, such as the High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, Calif., the Oregon Country Fair in Veneta, Ore., and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Telluride, Colo.

Organizers said Island Festival would be unique in Puget Sound because it would offer camping, something the region’s major music festival — Bumbershoot in Seattle — didn’t.

Mosler and Elliott also said the festival would “provide jobs and a boost to the economy,” according to an early proposal submitted to the parks district.

Indeed, the ripple effects on the local economy were heavily underscored by Mosler and Elliott: “It should not be understated how great of an economic impact can come from an event of this nature.”

This year’s Island Festival wasn’t what local businesses had hoped for,

however.

About a month before the event, organizers talked to merchants at the Langley Chamber of Commerce breakfast about the traffic the festival could bring to town. But visitors stayed away that weekend.

Nancy Rowan, executive director of the chamber, said business owners told her that business that weekend was w slow.

“It was probably the weather,” Rowan said.

Rowan added that business owners had reported outstanding revenues during Choochokam weekend a week before the festival, and also reported good business during the weekend after when the Ragnar Relay raced through South Whidbey when the weather was great.

Organizers told district officials the target market for the festival would be people in their mid-teens to mid-40s and beyond. The long-term vision was to create something that would grow each year to become a sell-out event before the gates open, with a festival that would eventually draw 8,000 to 10,000 people to the venue.

Revenues for the park district itself were estimated to hit $27,500 in its first year, according to the 2005 proposal for the event.

But organizers of the event also expected to cash in, estimating gross revenues to hit nearly $1 million by the fifth year of the event.

According to a spreadsheet of revenue projections for the years 2007 through 2011, festival officials expected to pull in gross revenues of $136,911 in the first year, and more than $933,000 in gross revenues by the festival’s fifth year.

Attendance would also climb from 1,300 in the first year to 5,000 in 2011.

Ticket prices for a three-day pass would rise, too, from $80 in the first year of the event to $145 in the fifth year.

It now appears that a camping ban would be the death knell for the Island Festival.

Camping was always the draw that differentiated the festival from other concert offerings in Puget Sound, according the documents reviewed by The Record. And three-day passes, which would allow concert-goers to camp out during the entire festival, were always projected to be the biggest part of the revenue stream for Island Festival, accounting for more than half of total revenues every year.

That said, financing to create the Island Festival has always been tenuous, according to e-mails to the district from the event organizers.

The 2005 festival was pushed back to 2006, organizers said in March 2005, so they would have time to adequately market the festival and book talent. And in 2006, investors backed off after the production budget doubled, and the promoters told the district in April of last year that the inaugural event would be postponed for another year.

Did the district get its due from this year’s festival? The district has not yet received its full financial report from the promoters, although it was required by the contract for the event and Mosler promised it to commissioners before the district meeting on Sept. 19.

Tapert said she hadn’t seen a financial report from this year’s festival.

“It’s fairly clear that they didn’t make any money,” Tapert said, adding that she still wants to see a financial report.

Commissioner Jim Porter agreed.

“Obviously it makes sense to see results,” he said.

Porter said it’s not out of the question that South Whidbey parks could be venues for future for-profit events. Island Festival has been a learning experience, he said.

“We have to review these things as time goes on. It’s a public facility. It is taxpayer generated. We have to be sensitive to that,” he said.

The promoters also tapped parks district employees to help out with the festival.

According to the park director’s report on the festival, the first two set-up days required quite a bit of staff assistance, with parks workers directing delivery trucks, helping find electrical outlets and handling other festival-related chores.

Arnold said the district was not compensated for the staff assistance that public employees gave to Island Festival before, during and after the event.

But Arnold also said that was not unusual.

“We’re already here working. It would be help we would offer anybody who would be putting on an event out here,” she said. “It wasn’t additional staff time.”

District workers who came to the festival on the weekend were on their own time, she added.

The district was supportive, Arnold added, and did what it could to help make the festival a success.

“With the limited staff we had, we did everything we could for them,” she said.

The festival itself was quite ambitious. It had more than 30 acts, including headliners such as Michelle Shocked, on two stages, plus other activities spread out across the expansive Community Park.

Still, the festival was heavily marketed off the island, and very few posters were seen on the island.

“I saw very little marketing on-island, and at the concert I saw very few islanders,” Tapert said.

Also, Tapert said the ticket prices were rather high and that may have kept some locals away.

Organizers tried to draw mainland concert-goers to the festival with YouTube promotional video the boasted “Seattle to the fest” in 85 minutes, showing a young man walking aboard the ferry in Mukilteo and taking Island Transit to the concert site after he landed in Clinton.

The festival also had its own MySpace page.

Even so, attendance appeared to be lower than 300 attendees. Promoters blamed the dismal weather; heavy, almost non-stop rain drenched the three-day festival.

While some in the community praised the organizers and the event — including its impressive line-up of entertainers — others said the festival was too loud, or the tickets, too expensive.

And others complained about a for-profit event on public property, one that left parks closed to the taxpayers who helped pay for them.

Porter said he only attended the concert for an hour or so, but during his stay he didn’t observe any violations of the agreement between the district and the organizers.

“When I was there I didn’t see any abuse. It seemed well controlled,” Porter said.

“However, the complaints from the public that came in after the event were taken serious and the commissioners had to respond to them,” he said.

Tapert said she, too, attended the festival.

“It was pretty empty. It was disappointing to see so few people,” Tapert said. “But the music was great.”

Keeping the park open for the public is also important for the commissioners. Still, Porter and Tapert said allowing events is a good way to generate some revenue for the park district to fund their own programs.

“I always want to keep the park open. You always want the kids to be able to play on the swing set and the skaters to skate in the skate park,” she said. “That’s obviously a concern.”

Some problems were noted beyond closing park lands to the public.

Parts of the property were damaged, but actual turf damage was minimal and nothing permanent, Arnold reported. A van had left deep tire tracks when it tried to drive up a slope, and the grass was trampled or turned yellow in other areas because of tents and stages.

Despite neighbors’ complaints about alcohol and drug use, off-duty sheriff deputies who helped provide security for the festival noted no major problems.

According to an e-mail from Lt. E. Tingstad of the Island County Sheriff’s Office, there were no reports of intoxication, assaults, disorderly conduct, theft or other criminal activity. The only complaint came after a teenager was seen lighting bottle rockets.

District employees also said the bathroom buildings in the park were heavily used, instead of the portable toilets that were brought in for the festival. The restrooms were messy all weekend, some ran out of toilet paper, and district officials found no evidence that a janitorial crew had been assigned to clean up and stock the facilities.

Some food vendors at the event also did not get their required food-handlers cards until the day before the festival started, according to the Island County Health Department.

If the festival wants to return, Arnold said a new round of contract negotiations would need to occur.

“We recognize that the contract would need to have additional conditions,” she said.

Arnold said she still supports the use of Community Park for concerts, adding that it means variety for a facility that typically sees mostly athletic events. The idea for Island Festival may have been a little too ambitious, she added.

“I did feel it was a just a little bit too much they bit off in that first year.”

“If it could be scaled back and held within noise ordinances, I would still be very open to having it in the park,” Arnold said. “It has to be something the community can bear.”

Arnold said the first year is always bumpy for special events, and she said she has seen many first-time events that never returned for a second year.

“I really do think they could still do the festival, it would just be scaled back. If they can’t get their head wrapped around that, then they’re going to have a hard time,” Arnold said.

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