The smoke finally clears; Vail-Leavitt keeps festival

05/06/2010 12:00 AM |

“I grew up in the streets. And guess what? I ain’t never flinched in my life.”

Those were the words of an exuberant Vince Tria immediately after learning that the nonprofit Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, which he serves as treasurer, was going to maintain control of the Riverhead Blues and Music Festival.

The Brooklyn-born and -raised Mr. Tria, owner of WRIV radio 1390, had been locked in a weeks-long, politically charged battle over the two-day summer bash. The fight pitted him and other Vail-Leavitt board members against the presidents of the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce and the downtown Business Improvement District and, by political connection, the Riverhead Town supervisor.

Both the Vail and the chamber groups filed competing permit applications in Town Hall last month to run the event, with Supervisor Sean Walter advocating for chamber control.

But about noon Friday, Mr. Tria and Robert Lanieri, the Chamber of Commerce president, met with Mr. Walter and the three men hammered out a tentative deal.

The agreement called for the Vail-Leavitt to keep control of the festival it had run since 2006, with the chamber helping to attract corporate sponsorships and running some booths, while also sharing in some of the proceeds.

A longtime confidant and ally of former Supervisor Phil Cardinale, who lost a re-election bid in November to Mr. Walter, Mr. Tria later complimented Mr. Walter.

During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s Town Board hearing, he took the podium to say, “I want to thank the supervisor for being a great mediator. You have no idea what a relief this is, and we guarantee you it will be a bigger, greater event.”

The chamber’s proposed takeover of the Blues Festival followed complaints that Mr. Tria was heavy-handed in running the event. There was a behind-the-scenes effort of have him removed as treasurer of Vail-Leavitt during the clash.

As part of the deal reached Friday, Mr. Tria agreed to show a detailed statement from the Vail-Leavitt outlining any profits or losses from the event, which has a charge for admission, unlike with other Riverhead events run by nonprofit groups.

“I think we’re in good shape,” Mr. Walter said after the meeting Friday, expressing cautious optimism both parties would play a role at the festival.

While the Vail-Leavitt board of directors approved the deal, the Chamber of Commerce board decided against having any involvement in the festival.

As expected, the chamber pulled its permit application at Tuesday’s Town Board meeting, but Mr. Lanieri also passed a letter to Mr. Walter stating the chamber didn’t want to participate at all. The letter stated “… the [chamber] Board of Directors cannot commit to a financial agreement that lacks transparency and full disclosure on the part of all participating parties.”

Vail-Leavitt’s special permit application then was approved by a unanimous vote of the five-member Town Board.

A week ago, with the clock ticking on the time required to book acts for the July event, the standoff seemed to put the fate of the festival very much in doubt.

Talks to settle the matter had hit a dead end, including allegations that the chamber had plagiarized its permit application. Vail-Leavitt threatened it would sue over Blues Festival copyright infringements.

Reached after the Tuesday meeting, Mr. Lanieri of the chamber commented, “Everybody should have a clear job and I think in this last proposal that they came up with, I didn’t see anything clear about it.”

The original hope, he added, was that Vail-Leavitt and the Business Improvement District would each chip in to help with the event, with the chamber controlling the finances and the Vail-Leavitt running the music end.

“And that’s what the supervisor wanted, bigger and better,” he added. “And it just didn’t work out. Things kept changing every step of the way and our board felt that we should step out, totally.”

Despite having pushed for chamber control of the event’s finances, the supervisor said he was pleased with the outcome — if only because the event would not be canceled.

“The music will go on,” he said. “We had countless meetings and everything seems to be going as planned with the Vail running the music festival.”

Some downtown business owners say they lose money or have otherwise felt alienated during the two-day show, which draws between 10,000 and 20,000 people downtown. Vail-Leavitt makes about $20,000 in profits, which it uses to run its historic downtown theater, officials there say.

“Those businesses downtown have a right and should have a voice and quite frankly I don’t see that,” Mr. Lanieri said Tuesday afternoon, saying “only time would tell” if the Vail-Leavitt makes a more concerted effort to address the concerns of all Main Street businesses.

“But the most important part of this whole thing is that the festival happens, because it is in the best interest of downtown,” Mr. Lanieri said.

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