Since 2010 when Shaul Zislin brought music to the public beaches of Gulf Shores with the Hangout Music and Arts Festival, the area’s biggest city has lost two similar events.
After more than 20 years in Downtown Mobile, BayFest was abruptly cancelled in 2015. Its replacement, called TenSixtyFive, cancelled its 2019 show within the past two weeks. Despite the setbacks, city leaders seem ready to revive these downtown events in some shape or form.
Mobile City Councilman Levon Manzie, who represents the downtown area, plans to ask for a vote on a $300,000 amendment to Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s proposed fiscal year 2020 budget to help pay for a replacement event.
“For the last quarter century or so we’ve had a signature downtown festival,” he said. “That music festival led to an uptick for hotels, restaurants and bars, particularly during an otherwise slow season.”
A replacement event would bring tourists into the city, which is important, as leaders have stressed a yearning to as much as double tourism in the Port City, Manzie said.
“We’re not going from 3 million tourists to 6 million tourists with our museums and historic homes alone,” he said. “All that will keep us where we’re at.”
Manzie hopes the money set aside for the festival could be used by promoters and entrepreneurs, who are the “pulse of the community” to put a festival together. He envisions something similar to BayFest, which he added attracted more visitors “in three days than have ever come to GulfQuest” National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico. For context, the city has taken over the day-to-day operations at GulfQuest and is set to spend $1.4 million on the museum this year.
The amendment, Manzie said, has enough council support to pass, as a budget amendment only needs four votes.
Stimpson supports a revival as well, but would like to see smaller festivals more often, rather than one large event once per year. Stretching the events throughout the year would help downtown during leaner months, he said.
“Given the option for one festival that costs … $300,000, I’d rather have four festivals and let’s divide the $300,000 by four,” he said. “If you think about it, starting [in] November, December, January and February, we’re booked between Mardi Gras and the holidays. So, that leaves you March through October.”
As for holding a major festival in October, Stimpson said he thinks it’s unwise to put all the resources toward one event during a month that can be greatly impacted by late hurricanes.
“October is a very vulnerable month because of weather,” he said. “I mean, two of the last BayFests were impacted by inclement weather.”
Stimpson envisions splitting the funding four ways and using it as “seed money” for potential promoters to then come to the city with ideas for possible events in April, June, August and October.
“The mechanics of that have to be thought through,” he said. What that does, if you’re an out-of-town visitor and you can’t come in October, you may come in April or June. It gives you four shots at it and it gives you less vulnerability at having a rainout.”
Stimpson said he hasn’t yet announced his plan to the council. He also said he was willing to work with councilors on a solution.
“We have not really engaged the council on what should be done, but we’re not opposed to doing something different to promote the opportunity for tourism through music,” he said.
A $300,000 investment on the city’s part would more than triple the $98,000 BayFest received in the years leading up to its demise. In previous years the city had given more.
Whatever the city does to bring in a festival, former BayFest board member Rhonda Davis is all for it. Although, she admits, there would be challenges.
She said a new festival should charge admission, unlike TenSixtyFive, which was free.
“People are not going to see quality and value with a free show,” she said. “When you have a free show, you get very, very low investment from the public.”
Davis said a ticket purchase helps get people committed and they are less likely to bail out at the last minute. A goal of a downtown music festival should remain bringing visitors downtown, Davis said.
Although Hangout Fest is managed by a for-profit business, Shaul Zislin believes support of any kind from the host city is important. Gulf Shores, for instance, gives the internationally known festival in-kind services, like the use of public beaches.
“The city support and the community support is definitely way up there,” he said. “It’s hard to do this without city support.”
The music festival required public works, police and fire support, as well, but Hangout Fest organizers pay a “pretty big” bill for overtime in those three divisions, Gulf Shores city spokesperson Grant Brown said. On average, the festival pays the city back some $300,000.
“It’s important that people know that,” Brown said.
The city entered into a franchise agreement with the festival in 2015. After the first three years of the agreement, the festival began to pay the city 1 percent of its ticket sales.
The festival has a $30 million economic impact for South Baldwin County, Brown said, citing an Auburn University at Montgomery study.
“The businesses are more full, especially hotels, restaurants and gas stations,” Brown said.
The city sees about $700,000 in direct tax revenue generated from the three-day festival, Brown said.
In addition to public support, Zislin believes a private entity has to also be involved in order to help produce results in the most efficient way possible.
“You need the balance a private business aspect brings, as a litmus test for this,” he said.
Zislin, who owns a restaurant group on the beach that includes The Hangout, said he understands what the festival means to business owners trying to get by on seasonal business. The festival began as a way to bring people to the beach off-season.
“The tourist season is 12 weeks,” he said. “If you can extend it by one week that’s an 8 percent extension.”
Losing a large-scale music festival, like BayFest, is not just an issue for Mobile, but for cities all over the country as well. At one time large festivals were a national trend, but that has changed more recently, Gabe Fleet, an entertainment attorney with the law firm Greenberg Traurig, said.
“I think that’s what you saw for a while nationally,” he said. “There was a big trend toward big festivals, destination-type events. Everyone was starting a festival.”
This included Birmingham with City Stages and Mobile with BayFest. However, as big promoters began to acquire large events, other events failed to draw as much interest as they had previously. Rather than a nondescript, large festival with a variety of music, Fleet said successful events must have their own identity.
“There will always be big festivals, but they have to have an identity to be successful,” he said. “Like Hangout; it’s on a beach, it’s unique. These things will continue to do well.”
The uniqueness of Hangout Fest has helped it grow to become an international destination on the festival circuit, Fleet said. It’s almost impossible to compare it to what BayFest once was, or to what TexSixtyFive was.
“Hangout is a major, national festival, just like Coachella,” Fleet said. “To compare it to BayFest is like comparing apples to a giraffe.”
There is a move away from bigger, outdoor festivals toward venue-based festivals, SouthSounds Music Festival co-chairman Ted Flotte said. A venue-based approach, like at South By Southwest in Austin, helps organizers save money.
“The venues already have sound systems, equipment and bars,” Flotte said. “If it rains you don’t have to cancel, which is a big problem for other festivals.”
In addition, a venue-based festival directly benefits local participating businesses, Flotte said, whereas at BayFest and other similar events, those businesses were separated from the paid festival crowd.
While organizers have taken the less risky approach of venue-based festivals, in general, events are getting smaller because the music industry is more decentralized than it was in the 1980s and 1990s when big festivals were at their peak in popularity, Flotte said.
“The music business has changed significantly,” he said. “It’s not like everyone listens to the same 20 bands now. You can’t build the same festival.”
This era in music calls for festivals to provide a niche, Flotte said. For example, SouthSounds tries to focus on Southern music. Okie-doke
While the larger TenSixtyFive is cancelled for 2019 due to a lack of sponsorship funds, organizers have already pivoted to another event slated for the first weekend in October.
On Monday, Sept. 16, organizers announced an event called Flavor Fest. The event, which is slated to take place Saturday, Oct. 5, on Dauphin Street, will include free live music and allow visitors to taste “flavorful new beverages” from more than 20 bars and restaurants.
SouthSounds is slated for its ninth year in Downtown Mobile. The festival will take place next April inside 15 to 20 venues, Flotte said.
Despite the current events, Mobile will need to find a way to make up some of what BayFest brought to downtown. An economic impact study done on the 2014 festival by University of South Alabama professor Dr. Christopher Keshock found BayFest had an estimated impact of $20 million.
Stimpson agrees the festival had an impact on downtown, but he doubts it was as much as what Keshock estimated.
“I think it’s marginal, really,” he said.
David Clark, CEO of Visit Mobile, said the impact the festivals had on downtown merchants and hoteliers will be felt.
“If you look at the impact of TenSixtyFive, it drove some occupancy,” he said. “It drove food, beverage and retail sales as well. To me it’s an investment in your city.”
Like Mayor Stimpson, Clark said he’s excited at the possibility of more, smaller festivals downtown to help spread the impact throughout the year.
While outdoor venues maybe aren’t as prevalent as they once were, Clark said, the downtown area still has a number of good spaces, including Mardi Gras Park, Bienville Square, Cooper Riverside Park and Cathedral Square.
“I think we have some really good spaces to these kinds of things,” Clark said. “I think it’s impressive.”
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