This year will mark the 12th annual Riverhead Blues and Music Festival, to be held July 17 and 18 in its traditional location — the downtown riverfront parking lot. The event draws thousands of people to an economically depressed area. Only the Riverhead Country Fair and the East End Arts Council’s Mosaic Festival draw similar crowds, and all three events are run by local arts and cultural non-profit organizations. Vail-Leavitt Music Hall has operated the Blues Festival since 2006. The event provides over half the annual budgetary support for our local historic theater, which is a registered non-profit charitable corporation.
A conflicting application to run the festival has been submitted by the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce. News reports have also included quotes and support for the Chamber’s proposal from representatives of the Business Improvement District, an organization at the center of legal proceedings involving its past president, Vince Tria. Mr. Tria has been treasurer of the Vail-Leavitt board since 2002 and clearly the most visible and vocal advocate for the music hall over the last eight years.
The BID initiated the Blues Festival, but relinquished it to the Vail in 2006 because of mounting bills. The estimate of losses in their final year of operation was tens of thousands of dollars, beyond town-provided services that include police officers, groundskeepers and electricians, among others. The Vail alone took the controversial steps of gating the event and adding admission bracelets, which saved the festival when no other organization would or could. Five years later, the festival is a target for opportunists since the toughest work has already been done. Additionally, it provides a means for some who have issues with Mr. Tria to target him by threatening “his” organization.
As reported in last week’s News-Review, Ray Pickersgill, president of the BID management association, would like a “better accounting” of the festival, undoubtedly to use as a pattern for the Chamber to run the event. But he fails to state legal grounds for his demand. The Vail is a private corporation that has borne the risks and rewards of the festival for four years. If usage of town in-kind services is the basis for Mr. Pickersgill’s request, then every individual and business owner in the town would be compelled to reveal detailed financial reports publicly since we all use police, sanitation and other public services.
The goals and purposes of the Chamber and BID are to grow and benefit business activity. Town Supervisor Sean Walter has recently encouraged these organizations to develop new events downtown, but not to stage a hostile takeover of existing successful events. Chamber and BID representatives claiming they “want to make it better” presume that either the Vail cannot make it better itself (as it has for four consecutive years) or that others have goals that are both different from and preferable to those of the Vail. Exactly who would they like this to be better for?
The importance of Vail-Leavitt’s festival management goes beyond mere dollars. We give our community economic, cultural and social benefits that the business groups do not provide. As a volunteer organization with no paid employees, we receive no other direct town financial support beyond the two days of in-kind services for the Blues Festival. This year’s festival was planned to provide for two scholarship awards and support for the Make-A-Wish foundation in addition to support for the Vail itself. The funds raised from past festivals enable the music hall to be available to the community at low cost (or no cost) to support benefit fundraising events, including medical assistance for those in need, local churches, Toys for Tots, East End Hospice, Maureen’s Haven and many others. We have hosted the annual Riverhead Idol contest, Town Board meetings, public forums and the most recent town inauguration ceremony. The BID and Chamber are not charitable service organizations. The loss of this event by the Vail would be a loss to the entire non-business community.
Vail-Leavitt Music Hall has also brought some great performances to the public over the years. Notable performers including Lee Konitz, Leon Redbone, Brady Rhymer, Bucky Pizzarelli and local resident Teddy Charles have all graced our stage. The Vail has hosted Broadway performers and theatrical presentations including the debuts of “Harlem Hot and Sassy” as well as “Women on Fire” (which later gained acclaim as an Off-Broadway production). Typical ticket prices are about $15 to $20, a bargain by comparison with any performance venue on Long Island. Our “Original Voices” series enters its third year as the longest-running venue of its kind in Suffolk County. It is wrong that these events should be jeopardized by local business persons intent on extracting every dollar for themselves from a two-day event without regard for the cultural and social cost to our community.
All that, and still the Vail maintains the lowest admission price for any comparable festival event in the entire Northeast. While it would be easy to justify higher admission prices with more costly national headline acts, we have opted not to do so. Our local pool of talent is formidable, and gives us the opportunity to present a full two days of entertainment at a cost affordable to nearly everybody — an important consideration in these times.
As for the participation of the business organizations, the Vail-Leavitt has offered to incorporate a tent/booth area for the Chamber to use for fundraising, publicity or other purposes. The BID may or may not choose to provide funds for event advertising and promotion, receiving a full report of the usage of those funds for their stated purposes as they have in the past. The Vail-Leavitt board will not withdraw its proposal to continue the Riverhead Blues and Music Festival.
In my opinion, Chamber president Bob Lanieri’s quote from last week’s article is misguided. It is all about which group does it. I urge concerned citizens of Riverhead and patrons of the festival to voice their opinions to the Chamber of Commerce, BID and Town Board. If the Vail loses the festival, it is a blow to our cultural identity — putting commerce ahead of community. Show your support for the Vail-Leavitt at this critical time via our Web site at vail-leavitt.org, sign up for e-mail updates or join us as a Facebook “friend” through our Web site.
Mr. Barta is president of the Council for the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall Inc.