The first full weekend of October was always “BayFest Weekend.” Sometimes it was cold, sometimes a hurricane or tropical storm was threatening, but more often than not, the weather was absolutely spectacular. Warm, sunny days and cool, crisp evenings.
“Perfect BayFest weather,” everyone would say.
Perhaps because last weekend was so glorious, it made everyone a little more nostalgic than usual for the downtown Mobile music festival that called it quits five years ago. Or maybe it’s because the thought of being gathered with thousands and thousands of people anywhere right now seems so foreign and forever ago … but also fantastic. Or both.
But in any case, I was feeling that way too.
My social media feeds were full of friends posting their photos from the festival’s heyday, stating how much they missed it. My own “memories” were full of my friends and I posing in front of the various stages over the years and even my son’s “first BayFest” in 2009. (He was 2 months old, wearing a Bob Marley onesie and looking so thrilled to be there. We thought it was “cool parenting” at the time — not so sure anymore if “cool” was the correct word.)
And those times were only reflective of the years I had social media, the feed and memories stored in my brain, not my iPhone, dated back much further, back to my freshman year at South in 1995, when it all began.
Seeing Widespread Panic, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Ludacris, George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars, Motley Crüe and countless others over the years are among my favorite “Mobile memories.”
In 2015, just two weeks before what would have been the 21st annual event, organizers pulled the plug, citing “decline of support and interest,” and it folded forever.
That is, unless one current city councilman and recently announced 2021 mayoral candidate has his way. District 1 Councilman Fred Richardson has promised to bring back BayFest as part of his mayoral platform.
“People loved BayFest,” Richardson told Lagniappe in a phone interview this week. “BayFest was a huge success. There were stages for all genres and it brought people together for a good time.”
I loved BayFest too, and there were many people (including some close friends) who worked tirelessly to make it awesome for two decades. But should it (or something like it) come back as a city-sponsored festival?
I think the answer is yes, but within reason. And in a different, more modern way. It’s just not 1995 anymore. Or even 2015. (Don’t we all know it?!?!)
The city was just a little too up in the business of BayFest for many years. While it gave the festival money in the form of performance contracts and in-kind services, many of its main organizers were also city employees who were paid by the city, not BayFest itself. It became a sort of quasi-city organization. So it was costing the city a pretty hefty price once all of that was taken into consideration.
I don’t necessarily think that was a bad arrangement when it first started, but things just changed over time. The main problem was city festivals across the country started losing more and more money (including BayFest) as festival-goers started being drawn to more and more niche events.
I don’t think a city has to expect a full return on their investment for events like this, but the economic impact has to at least make some sense, and it just got harder and harder for cities across the country to justify these festivals to their taxpayers, and why very few still exist today.
BUT, with that said, I still believe all great cities should have a budget for so-called “quality of life” services and events. And live music events definitely fall under that category, including a BayFest-like event!
Yes, yes, yes, a city’s first order of business should always be making sure your garbage is being picked up on time and police and fire respond when you call, but there should be money budgeted for city events that fill up your hotels and restaurants and show off just how spectacular your city is to your haughty sister from Buckhead or your snotty cousin from Charleston.
And our city is wonderful, and I am never more proud of it than when I am showing it off during ArtWalk, SouthSounds, TenSixtyFive or BayFest — you know, when downtown just feels alive and sparkly and vibrant.
The city should (and does) support these types of events in different ways and should continue to do so, and should even increase allocations as the city prospers.
But it should just be in the business of supporting a festival or other similar events, not pretty much running it or propping it up entirely. And since it’s taxpayer money, this support needs to come with crystal clear transparency and accountability. And that includes if a check with a city logo on it is being written out to a nonprofit or other private organization.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson, who is also expected to run for re-election, has expressed support for multiple music events throughout the year.
“There is a case to be made that there is great risk associated with doing a single event because of unforeseen competing events and/or inclement weather. Multiple events scheduled a year or several months ahead give participants not only scheduling options, but also options regarding their favorite musical genres. That is why the idea of multiple concert events has been in discussion,” Stimpson told Lagniappe this week.
Of course, with the COVID-19 pandemic, all events have been put on ice for now.
But at least one organization is hoping to bring back their music festival once the crisis is over. TenSixtyFive was a downtown music festival that was quickly organized by the Maisel Family (owners of Gulf Distributing and longtime sponsors of BayFest) and the Peavy Foundation to step in when BayFest abruptly canceled in 2015.
It filled the streets of downtown with music that first weekend of October through 2018, though it had a much smaller footprint and was free. Though everyone loved the price, some critics said the lineup was not diverse enough.
TenSixtyFive did not have enough sponsorship interest in 2019 for the show to go on and obviously, 2020 was scrapped because of COVID, but Gulf Distributing CEO Elliot Maisel told Lagniappe this week they hoped to bring it back next year with the city’s help. And they hoped to have a “broader” and “more inclusive” lineup than in previous years, though he said they may have to charge a nominal entrance fee.
Other festivals that showcase a wide array of genres, like SouthSounds, MOB Music Festival and the Gulf Coast Ethnic and Heritage Jazz Festival, which had to cancel or go virtual in 2020, are poised to make strong comebacks in 2021 too, if they so desire. And with some extra city support, those comebacks could be even stronger.
The first full weekend of October will always be “BayFest Weekend” in my heart, but my head tells me with the right leadership, creative public-private partnerships and careful planning and budgeting, our streets can be alive and vibrant more than just one weekend a year. And that sounds pretty damn amazing too. Even better, really.
Now, if we can just get the ’rona out of our way.
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