No. 7 Top Story of the Year: Battle of the Blues

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The crowd at last year's Blues and Music Festival.

For a few weeks this year it looked as if Riverhead’s popular Blues and Music Festival might not happen because the town couldn’t decide who should run it.

The trouble started last spring, when Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, for which the festival is the main annual fundraiser, and the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce both filed permit applications with the town for permission to host the downtown event.
The chamber’s bid to run the festival came with the financial support of the downtown Business Improvement District, a local business taxing agency, and the political support of Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter.

The BID had run the festival from its inception in 1999 until 2005, but lost a lot of money on it in 2005. It never charged admission for the event. In 2006, Vail-Leavitt stepped up to take over the operation. It charged an admission fee and has done so ever since.

Debate about the propriety of an admission fee, tension between Vail-Leavitt officials and local vendors and rumors about financial misappropriations all helped fuel BID’s second thoughts about having let go of the event — and the plan to have the chamber try running it. But Vail-Leavitt’s board of directors had no intention of letting go.

To help break the stalemate, BID offered to give Vail-Leavitt $30,000 from its budget to offset any loss of revenues it would have made running the festival. Vail-Leavitt rejected the offer and threatened to sue the chamber and others over copyright infringement. Meanwhile, the July 17-18 festival date was approaching. In a peace deal brokered at Town Hall, the chamber backed off and Vail-Leavitt got its permit to run the event.

Later, Bob Barta, president of the Vail-Leavitt board, said the confusion over who would run the festival had made it difficult to book performers and attract vendors. He said Vail-Leavitt had made a profit on the festival this year, but it was much smaller than in other years. He acknowledged that very hot weather also had played a role in the lower attendance.

Mr. Barta has since told the News-Review that the organization has begun looking at other venues for the 2011 festival, just in case the powers-that-be in Riverhead once again try to take control.

So stay tuned.