Blues Fest organizers explore options

NEWS=REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Rosie Ledet and the Zydeco Playboys performing at the 12th annual Riverhead Blues & Music Festival Saturday.

If other organizations try to take over the Riverhead Blues Festival again next year, the festival might move out of downtown Riverhead, says Bob Barta, president of Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, which has run the festival since 2006.

Earlier this year, the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce made a bid to run the Blues Festival instead of Vail-Leavitt. Eventually, the chamber, which was working with the Business Improvement District on its proposal, backed out and Vail-Leavitt ran the festival, which Mr. Barta describes as a fundraiser for the music hall.
Why would Vail-Leavitt want to move the festival out of downtown Riverhead?

“The main reason is that we felt like we were in a somewhat hostile environment,” said Mr. Barta. “The BID and the chamber wanted to take over the operation and direction of the festival.”

Mr. Barta said Vail-Leavitt hasn’t ruled out anything at this point and is exploring whatever options are available.

He said the festival is the music hall’s biggest fundraiser, and that had Vail-Leavitt not agreed to take over the festival from the BID in 2006, the festival likely would have died. He said Vail-Leavitt has now obtained a trademark for the Riverhead Blues Festival.

The BID had run the festival from its inception in 1999 until 2005, but lost a lot of money on the 2005 festival. The festival had free admission when the BID ran it. Vail-Leavitt has charged an admission fee, most recently $10, since it took over.

Earlier this year, the BID and Chamber sought a special events permit from the town to run the festival. The BID offered to give Vail-Leavitt $30,000 from its budget to offset its loss of revenues from the festival, and allow the Chamber to operate some booths at the event. The chamber also said it would find corporate sponsorship.

Mr. Barta said the resulting confusion over who would run the festival made it difficult to book performers and attract vendors. He said Vail-Leavitt made a profit on the festival this year, but it was much less than in prior years. He would not disclose how much it made, saying it’s “proprietary.” He acknowledged that the extreme heat that weekend, in addition to the controversy over festival management, played a role in the lower attendance.

“If they are going to try and play that game again, we’re not into playing,” Mr. Barta said. “The survival of a nonprofit, charitable, all-volunteer organization depends on the success of the festival, so I need to be sure that we’re going to mimimize the impact of outside forces … I’d like to see it continue downtown. But if that’s not going to be possible, or if it holds me up from being able to pursue contracts with performers,” he may consider other locations, he said.

BID president Ray Pickerskill said he didn’t know if the BID and Chamber would make a similar proposal this year. Chamber president Bob Lanieri couldn’t be reached for comment.
This is not the first time Vail-Leavitt has threatened to move the festival, Mr. Pickersgill said.

“They tried to do this last year, too,” he said, but dropped that plan when the Chamber and BID sought to take over the downtown festival.

“When they found out how easily they could be replaced, they came back,” Mr. Pickersgill said.

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