Music festival to be reviewed at workshop

OKEECHOBEE — A recommendation to amend the planned development ordinance related to the Okeechobee Music Festival resulted in so many questions at the Aug. 11 Okeechobee County Commission meeting that commissioners opted to plan a workshop to discuss the details.

That workshop has been set for Sept. 8, at 6 p.m. in the county commission meeting room of the Historic Okeechobee County Courthouse.

Recommended changes included authorizing up to four major festivals a year. A major festival is defined as an event attracting 4,000 or more persons.

Each major festival shall be subject to criteria in this ordinance in addition to terms and conditions as specified in a Festival Use Permit to be issued by the Community Development Department for each festival. The ordinance would also address noise concerns.

The first Okeechobee Music Festival was held in March at the 800-plus acre Sundance Trails property, 9555 N.E. 120th St. It was a sold-out event with 30,000 tickets.Here Stage

“The big thing is to make sure there is good coordination between festival promoters and the town,” said Bill Royce, with the county planning department.

“We are aware of the noise situation. The county will set up a sound monitoring team,” he said. The ordinance will require a public meeting after each festival.

The change makes the county’s involvement with the festival more of an administrative review by county staff rather than bringing everything to the county commission.

“We have to have, without a doubt, a detailed sound mitigation plan,” said Katie Edwards representing property owners west of Sundance Trails.

She said while they appreciate the benefits of the festival with the addition of arts and culture to the community, the rights of the property owners in the area must also be protected.

“We very much look forward to working with them,” Ms. Edwards said.

Cliff Rosen, representing Soundslingler, said the 2016 festival required a bigger investment than initially anticipated. He said more investment will be needed to continue to build the festival and investors want assurance that the festival is a long-term enterprise.

“We really do have an extraordinary opportunity,” he said.

“The inaugural festival in March was an enormous success,” he said. And yet, the festival lost money.

“We expected at best to break even the first year, but we lost millions of dollars the first year. Thank God we have a very good foundation of investors in our group,” Mr. Rosen said.

“We do need now multiple millions of dollars more to be invested for March 2017,” he said.

They need to show the investors that the company has the right to hold festivals for years to come, and they will eventually see a return on their investment.

He said the festival organizers were thrilled with the positive reaction from the community.

“We can work with the county, in concert with the planning department, the fire department, the public safety department,” he explained.

The 2016 festival helped the Okeechobee County economy, Mr. Rosen said.

It generated $1.5 million in state and local taxes.

“We have proven we can do it. We must certainly have a strong foundation on which to do it,” Mr. Rosen said.

The change in the ordinance would give Soundslinger the title right to hold the festival but would not diminish the authority of the county, he said.

“There is really no additional risk to the county. This facilitates us not building our house on sand. It’s an entitlement for us to operate,” he said.

Mr. Rosen said a second issue is a proposal that the county levy a $3 per ticket fee.

“We are a start-up business,” he said.

“We did not come in and ask for a tax break or any incentive money to make this happen.

“Now that we have, it seems that in the glamor of having this major international event happen, we have lost sight of the fact that this is a start-up business,” he said.

“To assess a $3 tax on every ticket, would be an impact fee,” Mr. Rosen said, adding that the festival already reimburses the county for all expenses.

“We pay every dollar that you spend,” he said.

Mr. Rosen said they expect every festival to lose money the first year.

“By the second year, we need to break even,” he said.

“By the third year, we need to bring some money into the cash register.”

He suggested that if a per ticket fee is required, it be phased in with no fee for the first or second year, $1 a ticket in the third year, $2 a ticket in the fourth year, and $3 per ticket in the fifth and subsequent years.

“What I really hope happens is that we do an improved job every year to the downtown merchants,” he said, adding that he hopes the local businesses look forward to an increase in sales every year during the festival.

Mr. Rosen said they also hope to have smaller festivals and events throughout the year, and he does not think there should be a surcharge on the tickets for small events.

“We have to be very sensitive to what these tickets cost to bring people in,” he said.

Soundslinger is committed to working on the noise issues, he added.

“I am personally committed to doing everything I can for the neighbors in regard to the sound impacts.

“A sound management plan is a good thing. I am all for it,” he said.

“I absolutely empathize with the neighbors,” said Commissioner Bryant

Culpepper, but he added that overall he was very favorably impressed with the festival.

“I think there are things that can be done such as noise abatement,” he said.

“The economic benefit was a big shot in the arm,” he added.

“People were seeing Okeechobee County for the first time, who didn’t even know it existed.

Commissioner Culpepper said he understands the need for a long-term commitment for the event.

“Some of these acts may take two to three years to book them in advance,” said Commissioner Culpepper.

Mike Chillelli, who said he lives half a mile from the festival grounds, commented that the noise was a problem.

“They need to do something about that,” he said. “All night long you can hear that thump, thump, thump.

“They also need to do something for traffic,” he said.

“Otherwise it’s a good moneymaker for the county.

Commissioner Terry Burroughs said he only received a copy of the proposed ordinance on Saturday and he has a lot of questions.

He suggest bringing it to a workshop.

“We have a number of things we need to consider especially in regard to noise ordinance,” he said.

“We have a lot of things the planning board took into consideration.

“We don’t want you to come back year after year for a permit,” he said.

“We want to give you something that is fair to you and fair to the community too.”

“I think we need to have a workshop with the sheriff’s department,” said Commissioner Margaret Helton.

“We need to have a noise ordinance in place. If we don’t have an ordinance in place, we can’t tell them their music is too loud,” she said.

Commissioner Culpepper said if the county adds a surcharged to the tickets, it makes them even more expensive.

“I had individuals tell me they would have liked to have come but could not afford to,” he said. “You don’t want to make it unaffordable for people to attend.”

The noise problem, Commission Culpepper said, “is all about the bass.”

It wasn’t actually the music that could be heard a distance from the festival grounds, he said. “It’s all that thumping.”

He suggested the festival reduce the problem with scheduling.

“The music festival was a benefit to the community,” said Commissioner Helton.

“I was out there. I have never seen anything so organized, so well run and so clean.

“The noise was an issue,” she said.

“We do have to protect the citizens who live out there at the same time that we want you to be successful,” she told Mr. Rosen.

Chairman Irby said the county has other venues that cause sound issues that would also be covered by noise ordinance.

He said as with the festival, the loud base is usually the problem.

Chairman Irby said the county also should determine if there is a need for roadwork in the Dark Hammock area.

“My experience was going out there every day. The only time I saw any traffic backup was Friday morning,” he said, noting there was a backup at the area where tickets were picked up.

“It was probably a ten-minute delay for those of us who were in line to get past that,” he said.

“I didn’t see any traffic to speak of Saturday night and Sunday night,” he said.

The plan is for the vast majority of people to get there and stay there.

County administrator Robbie Chartier said there were some county staff costs that were not paid by the festival in 2016, and the per ticket fee was suggested to cover those costs. For example, she said, because of the size of the crowd, emergency management had a presence at the event, and there was no way to recoup that cost.

In addition, county staff’s time is used in the planning phases.

Chairman Irby suggested rather than have a per-ticket fee, they could itemize the costs to the county.

Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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