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The struggle for new DeLuna Fest date
By Kate Peterson

Five Flags Tourism Group announced at the beginning of January in the daily newspaper that it was moving its DeLuna Fest to the weekend of Sept. 30-Oct. 2. There were a few problems about this brash bulletin.

The organizers failed to ask permission from the Santa Rosa Island Authority. Five Flags Tourism Group had already told the audience on the final day of its inaugural weekend, which was held Oct. 15-17, 2010, that they would be back the same time next year.

Three other events, Santa Rosa Island Triathlon, Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce’s Art & Wine Weekend and Pensacola Beach Songwriters’ Festival, had already called dibs on the first weekend of October, although they hadn’t filed the official paperwork with the SRIA.

Pensacola Beach loves a good fight, especially in the cold winter months when the bikinis and swimsuits are in the closet and there’s little else to do but drink and gripe. The battle for the Sept. 30-Oct. 2 weekend had all the makings of a no-holds-barred beach brawl. So far, the political struggle has lived up to its billing.

CORNER 1: SANTA ROSA ISLAND TRIATHLON

According to Charles Gheen, president and race director, the Santa Rosa Island Triathlon has been taking place at Casino Beach, in the same location slated for DeLuna, during the first weekend in October, for 16 years. (Actually, the triathlon wasn’t moved to that weekend until 2006. The T-shirt logo on the history page of the event’s website, santarosaislandtriathlon.com, shows the first triathlon was held on Oct. 12, 1996. For years, it was held the same weekend as the Pensacola Seafood Festival, which has been the last weekend of September.)

The 2011 triathlon is scheduled to take place on Saturday, Oct. 1, the same day as proposed for DeLuna Fest. The Santa Rosa Island Triathlon is a nationally recognized, USAT-sanctioned sprint triathlon, composed of a 600-yard swim, an 18-mile bike ride and a 3.1-mile run.

The Visit Pensacola website has the dates for the triathlon published on their Major Events calendar. Typically 900 or more tri-athletes attend the event with their families.

When he heard about the DeLuna Fest move, Gheen commented, “Not on my weekend, please.”

In an e-mail dated Jan. 5, from Gheen to Robbie Lofty, SRIA Human Resources and Events Coordinator, and Bob West, SRIA Director of Public Safety, Gheen explains that there are other 5K runs and triathlons scheduled in surrounding areas and moving his event would not be feasible. He also mentions that there are concerns about the use of the Casino Beach parking lot by both events. He would rather DeLuna Fest stay with the weekend of Oct. 15.

In a phone interview, Gheen told the IN: “I have been with the non-profit organization for the last five years. We have been working together with the other two events, Songwriters’ and Art & Wine, to create some great cross-promotion for the events and get people out to the beach. The dates are already published. It is simple to see, they have proposed something that is unworkable as far as space, security and safety is concerned.”

CORNER 2: PENSACOLA BEACH SONGWRITERS’ FESTIVAL

The first Songwriters’ Festival was held in 2009. This past year the festival ran from Monday, Sept. 27 to Sunday, Oct. 3. Casino Beach wasn’t a part of it. The venues were on private property: Bamboo Willie’s, The Grand Marlin, Margaritaville, Paradise Bar & Grill, Sabine Sandbar and Quietwater Amphitheatre on the Portofino Boardwalk.

Renee Mack, manager of Paradise Bar & Grill as well as board member and co-founder of the Pensacola Beach Songwriters’ Festival, wants her festival to stay as scheduled. “No one enjoys a festival more than me,” said Mack. “I worked Jazz Fest, in New Orleans, for 25 years. If you look in Visit Pensacola Magazine, the Songwriters’ Festival, the triathlon and Art & Wine are all in the publication. The triathlon has given so much back to the beach community over the years: bought paddleboards for the lifeguards, helped refurbish the school, bought a TV for the fire department and contributed to beach beautification.”

For Mack, DeLuna Fest is a wonderful event for the third weekend in October. She believes the events need to be staggered in order to keep a steady flow of people coming to the beach.

When asked what she thinks about the outcome concerning whether or not DeLuna Fest will be allowed to move its dates, Mack said, “It will come to vote by the full board.”

Reneda Cross, president of Pensacola Beach Songwriters’ Festival, Inc. and festival coordinator said, “With the confirmation of 50-plus songwriters, no, we have not changed our date and have no plans to. The last two years have proved to be successful events, working side-by-side with Arts & Wine and the triathlon, and we are looking forward to another great year in 2011.”

CORNER 3: PENSACOLA BEACH ART & WINE WEEKEND

This is another relatively new event hosted by the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce on the first Saturday and Sunday of October. Pensacola Beach is transformed into an artist’s village with painters, potters, and jewelry makers displaying and crafting and is spread across the island in 14 locations. The beach trolley takes participants from location to location.

CORNER 4: DELUNA FEST

The new kids on the block held their first DeLuna Fest on the Gulf side of Pensacola Beach, featuring nationally recognized acts such as Stone Temple Pilots, Daughtry, Dierks Bentley and Willie Nelson.

There were an estimated 45,000 tickets sold for the festival. The festival brought national mentions of Pensacola Beach in publications including Newsweek, Billboard and the Associated Press. It brought in $495,946 in ticket sales and $402,908 in food, beverage and merchandise sales.

The IN checked with beach businesses about the impact of DeLuna Fest. Seamas Hunt, owner of Paddy O’Leary’s bar, located on the east end of the business district on Pensacola Beach, said this about the 2010 DeLuna Fest: “Our business was up 75-80 percent compared to a normal weekend…I would hate to see the festival leave the beach.”

Robert Gleim, manager for Bamboo Willie’s on Portofino Boardwalk added, “We saw a small increase in sales that weekend. The weather is such an important factor to the success of the festival.”

All events using public property must file their event application package (EAP) annually, according to the SRIA policy. On the Event Cover Sheet for the EAP, it clearly states, “Although an event may be approved for additional years, it is not a guaranteed approval for additional years.” The SRIA revised this cover sheet on Jan. 15, 2008.

DeLuna Fest followed the SRIA guidelines and submitted its event application package on Jan. 5. The Santa Rosa Island Triathlon submitted its EAP six days later. Five Flags Tourism Group holds a five-year agreement with the first right of refusal to produce DeLuna Fest any weekend in October with permission from the SRIA. The Songwriters’ Festival and Art & Wine Weekend don’t require EAPs.

ROUND ONE

At the Jan. 12 regular committee meeting of the SRIA Board, Scott Wheatley and Nick Bodkins, both of Five Flags Tourism Group, officially made the request to use Casino Beach and the Pavilion area from Sept. 30-Oct. 2, two weeks earlier than last year’s inaugural festival.

They stated the change was needed because Mobile’s BayFest is the weekend of Oct. 7-9. The DeLuna Fest organizers did not want to be sandwiched between Mobile’s BayFest and the Pensacola Interstate Fair, scheduled for Oct. 20-30.

At the same Island Authority committee meeting, Mr. Ed Guernsey, chairman of the Island Authority Board, asked for all the parties involved to arrange a meeting, try to work together to find a solution, and bring the resolution back to their Jan. 26 meeting.

Scott Wheatley, one of the four partners of Five Flags Tourism Group, explained the request for the date change to the IN.  “We are protecting our interests by changing the date of DeLuna Fest,” said Wheatley.

“We did a really good job last year. We want to build on the concept. Pensacola is in a 50-year countdown to a 500-year anniversary and we want to have an event that showcases the area. We are the birthplace of the New World. It is a point of pride in this town.”

Wheatley and his partners don’t want to be sandwiched between BayFest and the Pensacola Interstate Fair and be forced to compete for talent with Mobile’s event and New Orleans’ popular Voodoo Fest, which is the last weekend of October. “Shifting the dates has been tough,” said Wheatley. “We hope the Island Authority Board is not put in a position to have to make the decision.”

Five Flags Tourism Group sees the Santa Rosa Island Triathlon as the biggest obstacle to switching dates since it also uses Casino Beach and its parking lot. The other events are primarily hosted on private property. Wheatley has been optimistic that a compromise can be worked out with Gheen.

“We can make it work for both,” said Wheatley. “The triathlon will be done before our event starts. We wanted a 5K to coincide with our festival. We are excited to have the event; we can benefit from each other.”

DeLuna Fest organizers hired Guess Consulting, Inc., a race promotion firm, to figure out how the two events could coexist. Guess designed a site plan that allows for 1,200 athletes, 20 percent more than the anticipated triathlon attendance of 800.

Emily Mitchell, also a Five Flags Tourism Group partner, concurred, “We want what will work for both parties. There is enough beach for everyone. DeLuna Fest means so much for this area; it has the potential to be a long-term popular event. We are 100 percent committed to working together to reach a solution.”

ROUND TWO

Representatives from all four parties met on Jan. 18 to work out the conflicts between the events.

Buck Lee, SRIA Executive Director, Paolo Ghio, Director of Developmental Services, Robbie Lofty, Human Resources and Events Coordinator, Jayne Bell, Director of Administration and Bob West, Director of Public Safety also attended as well as representatives from the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office and the county’s office of the Fire Marshal.

It would be an understatement to say the meeting didn’t go well. “Regretfully,” West later told the SRIA board, “I must report that the meeting ended in impasse.”

The Santa Rosa Island Triathlon and the Pensacola Beach Songwriters’ Festival did not believe there was any way to come to resolution and hold the events on the same weekend. Jeff Elbert, president of the Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce, representing both the Chamber and the Art & Wine event, stated that they would like to see a positive resolution. Those representing DeLuna Fest stated that they would like to see it worked out and believed that it could be.

There was additional discussion about the proposed site map. Suggested changes were dismissed by Gheen from the Santa Rosa Island Triathlon. Issues such as hotel rooms and beach parking were brought up but never debated.

The end result of the Jan. 18 meeting was that the Santa Rosa Island Triathlon and the Pensacola Beach Songwriters’ representatives were not going to move from their prearranged dates.

The Chamber’s position was one of compromise. The DeLuna Fest organizers held fast to their belief that they did not see any problem in hosting the events together.

SUCKER PUNCH?

Prior to the Jan. 18 mediation meeting, the newly-formed Ad Hoc Concert Subcommittee, chaired by SRIA Board Secretary and Treasurer Vernon Prather, held its first meeting on Jan. 11. The subcommittee’s purpose is to determine if live concerts would make the beach a better place, to explore existing live music events, such as Bands on the Beach, DeLuna Fest and Sounds of Summer, and to discuss their economic impact, determine their frequency and assess the impact on quality of life on the beach, which is an interesting mission since concerts have been a part of the beach life for years.

Bands on the Beach is a free outdoor summer concert series, located in the Gulfside Pavilion, running from May through September, every Tuesday night from 7-9 p.m.

Sounds of Summer, presented by the Island Authority, is a free concert series held from 6-8 p.m. most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from June through August, at the Quietwater Shell on the Portofino Boardwalk. Local musicians are booked for the event.

DeLuna Fest paid $48,313.47 in SRIA fees, and filled over 97 percent of the available hotel rooms on Pensacola Beach at full summer rates. According to organizers, on average, Pensacola Beach saw a more than 20 percent increase in business in October 2010 over the same month the previous year, despite battling the after-effects of the BP oil disaster.

The subcommittee voted to distribute a survey to Pensacola Beach businesses. The survey has the following five questions:

1. Was DeLuna Fest a positive economic impact to your business? If yes, explain. If no, explain.

2. Do the Bands on the Beach concerts have a positive economic impact to your business? If so, please state how much in dollars your gross sales are increased on Tuesdays as compared to Mondays or Wednesdays.

3. Do you think another type of music event later in the week would be beneficial to your business, and if so, what day?

4. What is your opinion of large, multi-day music events?

5. Would you be in favor of a three-hour concert on the beach featuring a nationally recognized group hosted in the spring or fall?

There is a note next to the fifth question; only beach businesses would be used as vendors.

The fifth question, according to Robert Rinke, Portofino Island Resort co-developer, was included at his request because he wants the subcommittee to consider a trial event to find out if a one-day concert would be feasible. Rinke had proposed a Beach Boys concert in 2010, using BP funds, but the concert fell through.

Rinke commented that he recommends booking a nationally known act that is playing in the area—which he believes can be booked at a discounted price—and scheduling a two and a half-hour show from 8-10:30 p.m. He wants the tickets to be priced from $15-$20, while making 15,000 available and using only beach businesses as vendors.

ROUND THREE

At the Jan. 26 meeting of the SRIA Administrative Committee meeting, it was a standing room only crowd with about 75 people packed into the meeting room to speak, listen and show support for their sides of the contentious issue: can DeLuna Fest change the dates of their festival to the first weekend in October?

Jim Pasquale, Pensacola Beach Songwriters’ Festival co-founder and treasurer, spoke in favor of leaving their event on the same day as scheduled; he thanked the vendors and stated that the event could not be moved. He appreciated the consideration of the board.

John Murray and Marc Sortino spoke in favor of the Santa Rosa Island Triathlon. They are representatives from the Multisport Performance Institute, a triathlon training enterprise affiliated with Portofino Island Resort. They host a kids’ triathlon, called the Sea Turtle Tri. They have been working closely with Charles Gheen, who represents the triathlon. They feel it is a great event to follow the vision of the island.

And finally, Charles Gheen, triathlon promoter, spoke saying he had respect for the DeLuna Fest organizers but resisted adding DeLuna to an already busy weekend. His position was simply to not have DeLuna Fest on the same weekend as the race. He also mentioned that there was no proposal to mitigate noise the Friday before the triathlon.

After hearing all of those scheduled to speak on the topic, some of the board members made comments about the proposed date change for DeLuna Fest.

Guernsey, SRIA board chairman, offered accolades to DeLuna Fest for its first year, and stated that he would like to see an event in May and in October. However, he believes the SRIA has a “moral obligation” to the smaller events.

“There is a saying, ‘You have to dance with the one who brought you to the party,’ and the three events (triathlon, Songwriters’ Festival and Art & Wine) brought us to the party,” said Guernsey. “It is true that DeLuna Fest made more in one year, but that is not a career; if it is all about the money, then shame on us.”

Guernsey offered DeLuna Fest few alternatives.

“You have two choices: not to move anyone and stay with what you have,” said Guernsey, “or if DeLuna Fest wants the first weekend, let ‘em write a check. If more money will be made in the first weekend for DeLuna, then let them pay for it. Pay who you are hurting.

“They should be reimbursed for revenue lost. It ain’t fair. I propose DeLuna Fest pay the triathlon $12,000 with a cap of $20,000 if they can prove additional losses, pay the Songwriters’ $5,000 with a cap of $7,000 and pay the Chamber $1,000 with a cap of $2,000. It’s a solution.”

Vernon Prather, who also serves on this committee, agreed with Guernsey’s statement. He said that he feels the schedule has been made, and that many of the participants of the triathlon or the Songwriters’ Festival said they were coming back this year. “It is a good date, with a great location and there is a contract agreement for Oct. 15,” said Prather.

Thomas Campanella, committee chairman and the only elected SRIA board member, stated that he dances with those that put him there, too. He concurred with Guernsey and Prather. He felt a bit strong-armed about the issue when the dates were announced in the paper and the Island Authority had not yet approved it.

Dave Pavlock, SRIA Board vice chairman, and Fred Gant, SRIA board member, both agreed with the rest of the committee.

Board member Gant mentioned that there had been a concern about which event submitted their application first. It was discussed and determined that whoever had their event scheduled the year before would get the event, application or not. DeLuna Fest had 60 days to secure their next event and they did not.

Michael J. Stebbins, SRIA attorney, stated that if the contract says Oct. 15, then SRIA would honor that.

After the board meeting, Nick Bodkins, a partner in Five Flags Tourism Group representing DeLuna Fest said, “We are disappointed. We respect the process and the Island Authority. We want what is best and are willing to work together. We are keeping everything open. We will look at all of our options and decide what to do.”

The Island Authority’s full board will have to make a decision on what will happen next. They meet again on Wednesday, Feb. 9. Until then, all parties involved are on hold, waiting to move forward with their events.

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