Battle for Riverhead Blues Festival reaches boiling point

04/29/2010 12:00 AM |

Lindsay Reeve of Flanders performs with ‘Who Are Those Guys’ at last year’s Blues and Music Festival, which organizers is the biggest of its kind in Suffolk County.

The fate of the 2010 Riverhead Blues and Music Festival remains very much in doubt.

The event’s organizer, the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, rejected a proposal late last week that would have handed financial control of the festival to the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce. In exchange, Vail-Leavitt would have received more than $20,000 in profits and a $30,000 loan, or what was called “seed money,” from the downtown Business Improvement District to help finance the two-day riverfront bash.

Then on Monday, Vail-Leavitt made a counteroffer that would have licensed its Blues Festival trademark to the chamber for the 2010 event for $50,000 plus 15 percent of profits. That proposed deal, sent in the form of a letter, was likely to be rejected by its stated 1 p.m. Friday deadline, officials told the News-Review.

Meanwhile, two permit applications to run the event still sit in Town Hall. One was filed by Vail-Leavitt and the other by the Chamber of Commerce. Only one can be approved, and time is ticking on contracts that need to be signed before bands start booking elsewhere, Vail-Leavitt officials have said.

If the chamber group wins the permit and moves forward with the event, Vail-Leavitt is threatening to sue the group over trademark infringement, according to its letter sent Monday.

“I’ve done everything I could do,” said Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, who has championed a chamber takeover of the event but wants Vail-Leavitt to help out. He even assisted in hammering out the proposed $20,000 deal that was rejected last week by Bob Barta, president of the Vail-Leavitt board.

“The Vail-Leavitt really has to get three members of the Town Board to approve their permit application,” Mr. Walter said. “I don’t think the Vail-Leavitt can accomplish that by sending threatening letters.”

Vail-Leavitt took over the music festival in 2006 after the BID, funded by a taxing district to promote downtown Riverhead, almost went bankrupt due to its years of involvement running the pricey festival, which launched in 1999.

But Vail-Leavitt officials, and especially its treasurer, Vince Tria, have been criticized for charging admission for what used to be a free event, while not disclosing to town leaders and others the details of the event’s finances.

Mr. Tria, owner of Riverhead-based WRIV AM radio station and longtime confidant and ally of former Supervisor Phil Cardinale, who lost a re-election bid in November to Mr. Walter, has fallen out of favor in Town Hall, as well as with some businesspeople on Main Street who have connections to Town Hall.

Town officials recently removed Mr. Tria from his post as president of the BID management association, which handles the district’s finances and plans the events it sponsors. He has declined to be interviewed, citing a pending lawsuit against Town Board members over the BID post removal.

Mr. Barta, the Vail-Leavitt board president, has insisted the nonprofit group has trademark rights over the Blues Festival through its common-law usage of the term over four years. He said the group also has a trademark application — Vail-Leavitt filed it in March after catching wind of the potential coup — pending with the federal government.

“But the thing that most bothers me,” Mr. Barta said, “is just the sort of principle of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ It’s the biggest festival or event of its kind anywhere in Suffolk County. It’s a very unique thing and I can’t help but feel that we were targeted.”

Vail-Leavitt officials said they use the approximately $20,000 they make from the event to fund yearlong events at the group’s historic downtown theater, the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall.

Ray Pickersgill, who was named in the letter sent by Vail-Leavitt officials and has emerged as a rival of Mr. Tria’s, having taken over as the BID management association’s president after Mr. Tria’s dismissal, said the attempted takeover “is not a personal attack.”

“I just want to resolve this and make sure there’s a little bit of transparency” to the festival, said Mr. Pickersgill, who owns Robert James Salon and Spa on East Main Street.

As for the trademark rights, Mr. Pickersgill said town attorneys had told him the name probably would likely have to be changed if Vail-Leavitt is no longer involved.

But Mr. Walter said he believed the name belonged to no one. “It’s not their festival. This is something that was started in the Town of Riverhead, something that came out of the BID and the Town Board,” Mr. Walter said. “It went to the Vail-Leavitt under the Cardinale administration … You didn’t hear it called the Vail-Leavitt Blues Festival.”

The supervisor has repeatedly said that his interest is in seeing the best festival possible, given the police, sanitation and other services the town provides for the event.

As for the BID, which has in recent years contributed money for advertising, several members of the BID management association’s board of directors told the News-Review this week that no agreement had been reached, and no vote had been taken on whether to lend Vail-Leavitt any taxpayer money to help finance the festival.

“The BID’s got nothing to do with the Blues Festival, as far as I’m concerned,” said Martin Sendlewski, an architect who was appointed to the BID board of directors in early March. “Since I’ve been on the board, there has not been any discussion of it, without exception. But I am a new member of the board.”

“It has not been discussed,” said veteran member Larry Oxman. “So to hear about a plan in such detail, I find very surprising.”

Mr. Pickersgill insisted the BID’s potential involvement in the chamber takeover of the festival had been discussed in previous BID meetings.

He also said that, ultimately, the Town Board has authority over BID expenditures, though that’s a bone of contention amongst BID management association members. Many insist Riverhead is the only town in the state that hands that power over to local elected officials, and that it does so illegally.

Liz Strebel, who owns the East Main Street building that houses Riverhead Grill and Peconic River Yoga, and is also a 13-year member of the BID management association, said she, too, had not heard about the festival at the group’s most recent meeting. She added she didn’t see the logic of the chamber taking over the festival.

“It takes a lot of time and effort to put the blues festival together, and I can’t understand why the chamber thinks it could do that in three months,” she said. “I don’t understand why the chamber would want to do this. I could see after the blues festival is over, if they want to do it for next year. But why would we [the BID] be supporting them to take it over?”

Mr. Pickersgill said he would put any plans to vote, and that he believed he would have the support of his board to move forward in helping finance a Chamber of Commerce-run festival.

“Would I be able to get my board’s approval if we were able to move forward with this?” he said. “There’s not a doubt in my mind.”

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