The BayFest board’s decision to move the music festival away from the downtown area struck a sour note with fans when Lagniappe broke the news last week, but leaders remain optimistic about the future of the festival and its former home of 20 years.
BayFest President Bobby Bostwick confirmed last Thursday that he was working to finalize a deal to move the festival to The Grounds, previously known at the Greater Gulf State Fairgrounds, after a split vote the board approved the move.
Bostwick said in a phone interview last week that the 90-acre facility in west Mobile would allow the festival to maintain a steady footprint, after organizers realized plans for a proposed hotel near Bienville Square downtown was forcing them to move or eliminate one of the event’s major stages.
Additionally, Bostwick said the festival’s relocation to the fairgrounds would allow organizers an entire week to set up and break down, which wasn’t possible downtown. In the past, BayFest organizers had to have everything taken down by 6:30 a.m. the Monday following the event.
Councilman Levon Manzie, who represents the downtown area, said in a statement he was disappointed the festival was moving to The Grounds.
“For 20 years, this festival has been an economic boon for the city of Mobile and especially our downtown business district,” he said in the statement. “This decision will have extremely negative effects (on) our downtown restaurants and bars.”
Manzie added that he’s hopeful the decision will help lead to the future success of the festival and city. He also referenced the overwhelming bevy of negative comments fans of the festival have posted on social media sites.
“While I understand the anger of BayFest’s loyal supporters, I’m hopeful that the decision made by the festival leaders works out favorably for its long-term survival, the city of Mobile and the thousands of music lovers in our region who have supported BayFest since its inception,” he said.
Helping to make the decision more palatable for city leaders like Manzie, was the council’s recent vote to annex The Grounds into the city. So while the festival won’t be downtown, the city will continue to benefit from any sales tax revenue it generates.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office released a statement last week that said they were fully supportive of BayFest and have “full confidence in its leadership to do what’s best for the event.”
Kent Blackinton, general manager of the Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel and president of the Mobile Area Lodging Association, said the move would obviously hurt downtown hotels, but would be good for hotels along the Interstate 65 corridor.
“It’s going to change that weekend downtown,” he said.
Blackinton added that shuttles from downtown hotels to the new venue could be a possibility, but there are no immediate plans for it.
In a statement Monday, Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said they were disappointed the festival board decided to move the event to The Grounds, but they understand it. He said in the statement that the CVB would continue to work to promote BayFest to out-of-town visitors.
“The Grounds have done a great job producing events of late and we’re confident that they will host a top-class event,” Hutchinson said. “And yes, having the event in downtown Mobile for the last 20 years was definitely a boon to our hotels, restaurants, bars and other businesses’ bottom line each year, but we look forward to working with our partners downtown to identify and promote other events such as this past weekend’s Cajun Cook Off, the upcoming SouthSounds Music and Arts Festival, our monthly ArtWalks and other events that will draw tourists to Mobile year-round.”
Carol Hunter, spokeswoman for Downtown Mobile Alliance, said the move would allow the area to promote smaller, more frequent events downtown, which would also have a positive impact on business.
For instance, she said last week’s Cajun Cook-Off hosted 4,000 visitors at Cathedral square — well above the 500 to 1,000 visitors organizers had originally estimated.
Hunter said she understands why BayFest organizers decided to make the move and she credited downtown redevelopment efforts as one reason for the shrinking footprint.