First Choochokam in 40 years scrubbed

Vendors sell their goods from a booth at a past Choochokam Music & Arts Festival.

Choochokam Music & Arts Festival organizers confirmed Thursday what many have suspected for more than a month — there will be no show this year.

The 2016 event was cancelled late last week, according to Celia Black, president of the Choochokam Arts Foundation. Blaming “logistical” problems associated with the move to Community Park, she said the challenges hampered planning efforts over the past few months. By the time they were finally hammered out it was too late to responsibly move forward, she said.

“So, we made the decision on Friday to go dark this year,” said Black in a Thursday morning interview with the South Whidbey Record.

The cancellation wasn’t announced publicly until musicians, vendors and other partners were notified, Black said.

Reaction in Langley to the news ranged from disappointment to mild concern from business leaders. Michaleen McGarry, executive director of the Langley Chamber of Commerce, said its impact on commerce is tough to gauge but will likely be felt hardest in the food and lodging industries — restaurants that would have been otherwise feeding hungry festival goers, and overnight accommodations businesses that will lose reservations.

“This year there’s going to be an issue of people who were vendors and will now be cancelling,” she said.

Gary Piper, a longtime Langley business owner who helped start the event in 1975, said this will be first time in its 40-year history that a Choochokam won’t be held.

“I’m kinda sad that it won’t be going on this year, and break the string,” he said. “But, if it’s meant to be it will come back.”

What happened

According to Black, the trouble is entirely due to problems that arose with the move from Choochokam’s longtime home in Langley to Community Park. Located on Maxwelton Road near the high school, the facility is in rural Island County, which means the festival’s now subject to a different set of rules and regulation — the county’s, rather than the city’s.

Organizers didn’t account for the differences, and there simply wasn’t enough time to get everything squared away, Black said.

“It just took a lot longer to work out the logistical details than any of us anticipated,” she said.

A series of hurdles, from meeting requirements with the health department to other unrelated scheduling issues, such as a potential scheduling conflict with Little League — it had a tournament that threatened to overlap with Choochokam — all conspired to delay the foundation’s securing of a signed contract with the parks district. And though Black claimed they were largely resolved by last week, it was too late.

“Because it took so long, now we don’t think it’s a responsible thing to do for our sponsors, our vendors, musicians and the community to rush it,” she said.

She and Gwen Jones, entertainment director for the event and a foundation member, said the process of alerting musicians and arts and food vendors went smoothly. It began this past Friday and continued into Saturday.

“All of them were positive and were ready to come back next year,” Jones said.

Both women declined to release just how many were alerted, saying only that it was “quite a few booths.” Black did note that contracts had not yet been signed, only non-binding commitments to participate.

“It would be irresponsible to contract with artists before we had a contract with the parks district,” she said.

Buzz buzzing

While some expressed disappoint about the event’s scrubbing, few in Langley expressed shock or even surprise upon learning the news. The change in venue, which occurred this spring, left little time to organize the massive event. As the days ticked away toward the scheduled July 16 start, there was little new information posted on Choochokam’s website and no visible promotional efforts. Speculation about whether the event would actually happen this year or not steadily increased over the past month from whisper to roar.

Many said they were just waiting for the announcement to be made.

“Yeah, I’m not surprised,” said Sue Frause, a longtime Langley resident and freelance writer.

“The buzz has been buzzing for some time.”

Likely fueled by a river of rumor that’s run through Langley for weeks if not longer, McGarry confirmed that the chamber has been receiving two to three calls a day for the past month about whether or not the event was still a go. Communication with foundation leaders has at times been challenging, she said, so it was difficult to provide solid answers. It became so bad that this week she said she decided to stop promoting the event altogether until she received confirmation.

Several past organizers said serious doubt about whether this year’s event would, in fact, occur began shortly after news broke this spring of Choochokam’s exodus from Langley. It takes about a full year to put everything together, said Bernita Sanstad, a Langley resident and former Choochokam coordinator.

“I never could believe they were going to pull it off,” she said.

Black and Jones said the idea to move the park was floated within the foundation, the non-profit organization that runs the event, this past October. Conversations with South Whidbey Parks and Recreation, the district that owns the park, began in January but work on securing a contract and meeting county requirements only really began in March shortly after the news was publicly announced.

The move was kept under wraps, but was disclosed at a Langley City Council meeting in early April, a few weeks before parks district commissioners were set to vote on whether or not to give Choochokam a permit.

Frause, also a former coordinator, agreed that a few months simply isn’t enough time to put Choochokam together.

“It takes a year at least,” she said, echoing Sanstad. “You can’t just throw this together at the last minute and say, ‘Hey, lets invite 10,000 people over and hope everything works out.’”

Shaken trust

Along with prevalent suspicion about the likelihood of a 2016 Choochokam event, confidence in the foundation’s leadership appears to be widely in doubt. Many contacted for this story, from musicians and past organizers to supposed members of the foundation’s existing board, said financial problems and venue and date changes have all conspired to erode public faith.

“I think the trust of the community, the people and the city has been shaken, even if it’s just with rumors,” Piper said.

Choochokam has been the source of several kerfuffles in past years, particularly concerning music. In 2014, arguments erupted over compensation of bands that played original music — they were eventually paid — and last year there were widespread complaints from musicians saying that they hadn’t been paid months after the event.

“It’s been a big controversy,” said Russell Clepper, organizer of the Acoustic Music Festival and a past Choochokam musician.

Clepper said confidence in organizers and foundation members within the South Whidbey music community is at an all-time low. Many don’t even want to participate, he said.

According to Black and Jones, the foundation is made up of themselves, Karen McInerney, Annie Deacon, Michela Angelini and Bruce Allen, who is also a city councilman.

But the financial headaches appear to have caused consternation within the foundation’s leadership ranks as well. Allen said he doesn’t consider himself a member, saying he stepped away from the board last year due to objections about the way finances were being handled.

“I don’t need to be a part of that,” Allen said.

He added that the organization still owes the city $250 from last year. City Treasurer Debbie Mahler confirmed the debt, saying it was for vendor business license fees that were supposed to be paid after the fact.

“They were going to pay for them, but they haven’t,” she said.

There also appears to be disorganization among the foundation’s ranks. McInerney said she’s not sure whether she’s part of a board or committee, but that there has been almost no communication from organization leaders nor consensus among foundation members of major decisions all year.

“There have been no meetings, no votes, nothing and I’ve been very concerned,” she said.

In fact, she said she didn’t know Choochokam had been cancelled until informed by a Record reporter late Thursday. Similarly, the decision to move the event to the park was not a group decision. She was informed later, she said.

According to Black, the foundation is a registered non-profit group and legally owns the copyright to the Choochokam name.

But Black says many of the criticisms and accusations levied toward the foundation, even from past or current members, are unfair. The foundation operates digitally, she said, and members choose whether or not to participate. But all have been asked or invited to do so, Black said.

She acknowledged that the organization has suffered from financial headaches, but argues that it’s more the result of dwindling revenues than mismanagement. The festival takes about $75,000 to run, and only about $20,000 is earned in artist and vendor fees. The rest comes from sponsorships and community contributions, which she says have been lacking in recent years.

In 2015, sponsorships fell through and Black and Jones contributed upwards of $50,000 of their own money to pay the bills, Black said.

“We’re all volunteers, and we care enough about the festival to self-fund it when there hasn’t been the community support to fund it,” she said.

She conceded that moving the festival mid-year was a mistake as it didn’t leave them enough time to put on the event, but she urged people to remember that their “hearts are in the right place.” She also emphasized that foundation members have never personally benefitted financially from Choochokam.

“Ultimately we’re just trying to keep the festival alive and do something good,” Black said.

What’s next?

Black said the foundation has every intention of continuing Choochokam in 2017, and emphasized that she is enthused about the event’s future at Community Park and the foundation’s partnership with the parks district.

“We’re really excited to have the park as our new home and feel like it’s a really great place for the festival,” she said.

She also announced that a “concert in the park” is planned for August as a sneak peak of the 2017 event.

Concerning the move from Langley, Black emphasized that Choochokam is an organization dedicated to the promotion of the arts.

“We’re not a foundation just to throw a party for downtown Langley every year,” Black said.

Also, “It’s a community event, not a commerce event,” she said.

Longtime organizers like Piper, however, say that’s not entirely true, or at least it wasn’t when Choochokam first began. While the event was dedicated specifically toward the arts, it was very much designed and intended as a mechanism for bringing new people to the city. And it was effective, then and now, he said.

“I still believe it brings new people to Langley and brings them back,” Piper said.

Others aren’t too sure. Arts festivals are a dime a dozen these days, said Frause, which makes her wonder if Choochokam has run its course and may be time to do something new and innovative. Also, it’s just not the same now that it’s not in Langley.

“There was just something about this being this town’s festival, and when it’s out in the park it’s just another festival,” she said. “I know that sounds silly, but I just think the venue was an important thing…. I thought it was magical, but things change.”

Even if Choochokam is never held again, and the name could be reclaimed, McGarry wondered if it wouldn’t be better to simply start fresh.

Allen isn’t convinced, not after 40 years of history.

“That’s a long time,” Allen said. “To just throw it in the toilet, that just doesn’t make any sense.”

Whatever the future brings, many in Langley aren’t ready to let go of some parts of Choochokam. The city has organized a street dance from 7-9 p.m. Saturday, July 9, at the Second Street Plaza. Bands include Janie Cribbs & The T.Rust Band and Rusty Fender & The Melody Wranglers. A ribbon cutting of the pedestrian archway in Clyde Alley will precede the dance at 6:45 p.m.

As for Choochokam, Piper is one of those who are hopeful for a brighter future. Running big festivals is a tough job, he said, and there are always complaints, he said. It doesn’t mean it’s the end.

“I think maybe it will survive and go on, and I hope it does,” Piper said.