It was 3 p.m. on a Sunday and it was awesome. That’s how former BayFest marketing director Suzanne McKissack Fleet described watching Cake perform during the first-ever festival 20 years ago.
“Cake played and it was so great,” Fleet remembered. “It was fresh and people were very supportive.”
For Fleet, who worked in the same capacity for the first decade of the festival’s run, Cake’s performance was the culmination of the work of a group of directors and organizers who were very passionate about bringing a weekend of music to downtown Mobile, much like what was present in other cities, like SpringFest in Pensacola and City Stages in Birmingham.
“It was the time of the non-niche music festival,” she said. “The whole thought was ‘this will appeal to everybody … We’ll have something for everybody.’”
Board members worked on a voluntary basis, but Fleet said she was compensated to the tune of $15,000 per year, working on the festival as many as 60 hours per week from about June to October. She supplemented that income with copywriting jobs while working for BayFest as an independent contractor.
“We did it because it was a labor of love,” she said. “We just believed in it and we were really passionate about it and we wanted to bring it here, and we kind of wanted to create a legacy with it.”
Fleet said she was shocked, as were many other Mobilians, to learn of last week’s decision to cancel the festival indefinitely.
“I’m kind of devastated,” she said. “My heart dropped because it’s just sad. It’s really sad that it doesn’t even have the option to adapt into something that could be maybe smaller, maybe more niche and continue on.”
Although surprised by the announcement, Fleet said she had noticed a dip in attendance, especially last year, compared to most of the years she worked for and later attended the festival as a fan. She said the weather last year was gorgeous and the acts were “fine,” but attendance seemed down, as “it was barely busier than that first year.”
“I knew they were in trouble,” she said. “I could move anywhere at any time without anything being in my way. In the more glory days, if it were 5 or 6 o’clock, you were beyond the point where you could move easily throughout the streets.”
Doomed by finances
Current and former board members also said they were saddened by the news, but understood it was a business decision.
BayFest board member Michael Dewberry said advance ticket sales for this year’s festival were less than half that of sales at the same time in previous years. The lackluster sales left organizers facing a decision, BayFest President and CEO Bobby Bostwick said in a telephone interview last week, explaining they didn’t have the $2 million needed to put on the event. Bostwick said the decision to “pull the plug” was ultimately made in order to allow organizers to refund ticket holders and sponsors. If they had waited until the end of the week, he said, that may not have been possible. In addition, the festival was already obligated to pay a percentage to scheduled bands and other contractors because of the cancellation. Bostwick said organizers had enough money in the bank last week to cover that.
Board member John Gage said the festival’s financial situation is not “terrible,” but it was better to cancel it now than to “leave people holding the bag.”
Gage said they could’ve possibly proceeded with the festival and it might have been fine, but it “wasn’t a comfortable situation.”
“There’s a difference between possibilities and probabilities,” he said. “It’s possible it would’ve been fine, but it’s probable that it wouldn’t.”
The festival did receive financial support from the city and county. Mobile County gave $200,000 in support of this year’s event and Mayor Sandy Stimpson had budgeted $98,000 in an allocation that had yet to be approved. But when asked about city funding for the upcoming festival, Bostwick said “the city didn’t give us a dime.”
The city also gave $98,000 to the festival last year, according to budget documents. Although the funding was cut by nearly $150,000 from previous years, Stimpson’s Chief of Staff Colby Cooper said the administration had originally offered $100,000 but it was reduced to $98,000 by a vote of the City Council during budget negotiations in 2014.
In addition, Cooper said, the city provided the festival with hundreds of thousands of dollars in in-kind services annually.
Gage didn’t blame the city for the festival’s ultimate demise.
“I can’t say anything negative about the city support,” he said. “The city’s support, or lack of support, had no bearing on the final outcome.”
According to the festival’s 2013 IRS Form 990, Bostwick, a former city employee, and the remaining 16 members of the board were counted as volunteers, while the organization paid roughly $65,000 in salaries, other compensation and employee benefits; it’s unclear to whom. A 2014 version of the form wasn’t provided.
Board members Scott Waters and Dewberry confirmed Bostwick was hired by the board and received a salary after he retired from the city, but neither could confirm how much the board paid him. Bostwick was removed from the city payroll after Stimpson took office in 2013 as part of the mayor’s streamlining efforts. Under the previous mayoral administrations, a large part of Bostwick’s job with the city was to run the festival.
As a city employee, Bostwick made $91,832 per year. Last week, Cooper chalked the parting of ways up to an administrative change.
When asked about his private salary Sept. 21, Bostwick refused to comment, saying he was too busy working to refund money to sponsors and ticketholders for an interview.
In an attempt to follow-up at the BayFest office located inside the city-owned building at 200 Government St., a Lagniappe reporter was denied access and told by a security guard Bostwick wasn’t taking visitors. Bostwick did call back later and said it was a misunderstanding.
Explaining Bostwick’s role, Dewberry said the board had many discussions, but decided to bring him on as an employee after he retired from the city. Waters said Bostwick “was BayFest.”
“For BayFest to be successful it needed Bobby,” Waters said.
Dewberry said the board also hired a former city employee as a bookkeeper. He said that employee retired following the 2014 festival.
Total revenue for the festival in 2013, according to IRS disclosures, was $5.8 million with $3.5 million in expenses, but that year was buoyed by nearly $3.4 million in BP oil spill grants dumped into the festival’s coffers. Without the infusion, BayFest would have lost roughly $1.1 million in 2013, putting the festival’s cash reserves severely in the red.
Dewberry said the money from BP was used to “beef up” the performance budget. He said the festival had a surplus, but not enough to save.
Failed We-Mo relocation
Scott Tindle, executive director of The Grounds, elaborated last week on the confusing situation that began in March where BayFest initially announced it was relocating to West Mobile, before retracting the decision and saying it was staying downtown. Tindle said they were approached by BayFest organizers about moving the festival to the intersection of Cody Road and Zeigler Boulevard, but negotiations eventually broke down and The Grounds pulled out.
Tindle said they were initially contacted by BayFest organizers who asked to see the campus of The Grounds and explore the logistics of a possible move.
“I thought they were planning another event,” Tindle said, but “they asked if dates were available for BayFest.”
At a news conference in April, Bostwick told reporters it was the other way around, that The Grounds approached BayFest about the move.
But according to Tindle, among many concerns was the proximity of BayFest to The Grounds’ biggest event of the year, the Greater Gulf State Fair, which begins Oct. 30. Eventually, Tindle said, he told BayFest organizers they “could make it work.” The next week, he said, the BayFest board voted to approve the move, without a finalized contract or any further discussion between the entities.
“I was surprised they were ready to make an announcement before anything like that was discussed,” Tindle said.
He said he emailed the lease terms to Bostwick and Executive Director Shana Jordan before the BayFest board vote, so “they had an idea before they voted.”
“They came out and tried to negotiate terms,” Tindle said. “We said, ‘this is what we can do.’”
According to a quoted price sheet, The Grounds offered to host the festival for a total of $132,000 for the week. The quote includes $170,000 for the rental and $50,000 for an October impact fee, but was prorated 40 percent because BayFest is a nonprofit organization.
Tindle said the impact fee was added to the lease because the festival would take place the same month as the fair and the three-day music festival was likely to cause some damage to the same earthen area used as the fair’s midway. He said BayFest organizers thought the fee was unreasonable.
“We charged the fee based on what it would take to get the campus ready for the fair,” he said.
Tindle said they were concerned about damage to the turf, as well as the power and water infrastructure.
At the April news conference explaining why BayFest ultimately rejected the arrangement, Bostwick told reporters The Grounds was going to charge between $100,000 and $200,000, while the event could lease space downtown for $40,000.
The first issue with the contract terms arose when BayFest organizers asked for comped rental rates, Tindle said. The Grounds didn’t have the capacity to do that, he said.
“We host other concerts,” Tindle said. “We didn’t want to comp one and not others.”
Meanwhile, even though BayFest had insurance, Tindle said officials with The Grounds didn’t believe it would cover the costs of damages quickly enough to prepare for the fair.
When BayFest officials balked at the extra fee, officials at The Grounds proposed a profit-sharing agreement, which both sides initially accepted, Tindle said.
“That would make us not just a rental, but a partner,” he said.
However, when The Grounds asked BayFest officials to share accounting details to study the profit-sharing potential, Tindle said Bostwick refused, admitting BayFest was expecting to lose “a couple hundred thousand dollars” this year.
“We backed out at that point,” Tindle said. “We didn’t want to get tagged as the place where you’re not going to be successful. We weren’t willing to damage our brand with an event planning to lose money. We weren’t willing to let them come here and die.”
Bostwick told reporters in April BayFest ultimately pulled out of the deal because The Grounds wanted too much money. In response to Tindle’s allegations, Bostwick said he had “no more to say about that at all.”
“It’s unbelievable,” Bostwick said. “He can say what he wants.”
Impact on downtown business
Elizabeth Stevens, president and CEO of the Downtown Mobile Alliance and former BayFest board member, said she expected a mixed reaction from business owners on the news of the festival’s cancellation. Referencing the previous board decision to move the festival to The Grounds, Stevens said there was a faction of business owners who said “good riddance” and a faction who thought “the sky was falling.”
“There are people for whom it is a business driver and some for whom it is not a business driver,” she said, adding the impact on bars, restaurants and hotels would be greater than other downtown businesses.
As for hotels, Kent Blackinton, president of the Mobile Area Lodging Association, said the festival’s loss would have a dramatic impact on area hotels, but especially those downtown. He said between the Riverview Plaza and the Battle House alone, the cancellation would result in a $250,000 loss.
With such short notice, Blackinton said, hotels would struggle.
“In our business when it’s two weeks out, you don’t have an opportunity to replace it,” he said. “You scrape and kick and try to get something.”
Whether they’re related to crowd size, musician meet-and-greets or the performances, current and former BayFest board members and organizers have fond memories of the festival’s 20-year run.
In addition to Cake, Fleet said she remembers several of the other musicians showcased throughout the history of the festival. For instance, she remembers Stone Temple Pilots on their first trip to the Port City. With a self-described “not always mainstream” taste in music, she said Jump, Little Children put on a fun show.
“I remember standing on the street outside Hayley’s with the 10,000 Maniacs talking about religion, which is just amazing,” she said. “It’s so surreal … ”
Gage said his favorite memory from the festival is the relationships he’s built over the years. Dewberry said he enjoyed literally introducing his now 15-year-old daughter to some of the festival’s musicians, especially a couple of years ago.
“The year she got to meet Hunter Hayes, I got to be father of the year,” he joked.
Former board member Rhonda Davis said her favorite memory from BayFest was in catching up with old friends and listening to the music.
“I loved seeing people enjoying the music,” she said. “I loved seeing people I hadn’t seen in years. BayFest was the vehicle that allowed for that.”
During his comments during the Mobile City Council meeting Tuesday, Sept. 22, Stimpson hinted a smaller, free festival was being planned downtown, during the weekend BayFest was supposed to take place. Few details have been released on the replacement, but Councilman Fred Richardson said he spoke to Stimpson about including a local jazz group.
Councilman Levon Manzie said he hopes this replacement will be followed by another annual festival to help support downtown businesses he represents. He said he understands a new festival might require more private funding in the future.
Manzie said he applauded the efforts of Stimpson’s office and others to put “something together” for that weekend.
“For 20 years it was an economic driver for the downtown area,” he said of BayFest, calling it a major loss.