Music festival may return downtown

03/20/2014 7:33 AM |
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Robert Ross of NYC prepares to take the stage Saturday at the 2012 Riverhead Blues & Music Festival in June.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Robert Ross of NYC prepares to take the stage Saturday at the 2012 Riverhead Blues & Music Festival in June.

So, it turns out, a music festival could in fact be returning to downtown this summer.

With a barbecue contest to boot. 

After failing to gain traction on a pitch he made at a January meeting, John Barci got approval from the Business Improvement District Management Association on Wednesday to hold a two-day barbecue contest and music festival in downtown Riverhead on Labor Day weekend.

In a Jan. 15 BIDMA meeting, he pitched the idea as a “Blues, Brew Barbecue and Bacon Festival” in downtown Riverhead along the waterfront on Aug. 30-31. At the time, then-BID president Ray Pickersgill, who has since been appointed executive director of the BIDMA, said that downtown businesses that sell beer or food will be angered by such a proposal because it will compete with their businesses.

“You guys will handle the food and beverages,” Mr. Barci of North Babylon said on Wednesday. He said he envisions the event as part of a Long Island barbecue championship, in combination with existing BBQ contests in Manorville and Brentwood that are part of a 12-event “Empire State” championship.

Mr. Barci amended the proposal Wednesday to eliminate beer and food vendors and to instead direct participants to existing restaurants. 

It would be sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, the largest barbecue contest sanctioning board in the country, he said. 

Although Mr. Barci sought input from the BIDMA, which represents downtown businesses, the proposal will need a special event permit from the Town Board in order to officially be approved.

“I can tell you right now, they are going to scream and yell and carry on,” Mr. Pickersgill said in January.

“Since then, I’ve gone around and gotten a lot of input from business owners,” Mr. Barci said Wednesday. “We’ve come up with a new plan.”

The revised plan Mr. Barci presented Wednesday eliminates proposals for a beer garden, a wine tasting tent, food courts and vendors and an outdoor acoustic blues stage. It also changes the type of the music to be played at the festival from strictly blues, to just music, including blues, country and rock, according to Mr. Barci. It would still have craft and retail vendors and the main stage would be in the parking lot behind the former Swezey’s store.

John Barci explains his proposal for two-day music festival and barbecue contest in downtown Riverhead to the Riverhead Business Improvement District Management Association Wednesday (Credit: Tim Gannon)

John Barci explains his proposal for two-day music festival and barbecue contest in downtown Riverhead to the Riverhead Business Improvement District Management Association Wednesday (Credit: Tim Gannon)

Mr. Barci hopes to make the festival free admission with a donation for charity, but says if they do have to charge for admission, it will be $5 or under.

“I don’t expect to make money on this a this point,” Mr. Barci said. “I’m looking to help the town.”

No music festival in downtown Riverhead was held last year or in 2011.

Initially run by the downtown Business Improvement District, the original Riverhead Blues Festival ran into financial troubles and for the past six years — save for 2013 and 2011 — the festival had been run as a fundraiser for the historic Vail-Leavitt Music Hall on Peconic Avenue. But last year, Vail-Leavitt president Bob Barta said the nonprofit was going to try and hold the festival in an alternative location. That never panned out.

On Wednesday night, Liz Strebel, who owns the Riverhead Diner and Grill on Main Street, said she was initially opposed to Mr. Barci’s idea before meeting with him for more than an hour about his new proposal.

“He won me over,” she said Wednesday. “He heard the feedback and he came back with a new plan.”

There was no opposition from BIDMA members when asked for a vote on the event Wednesday.

Mr. Pickersgill said he had spoken to business owners Monday and was told they opposed the plan, but Mr. Barci said that was before he eliminated the beer and food vendors.

Mr. Pickersgill still was angry that he wasn’t aware of the change when he sought feedback.

“I wasted my time for you, walking around and talking to these businesses to see if they wanted to do this,” he said.

tgannon@timesreview.com