Blues Fest lost thousands — and ‘almost certainly’ will have to move

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | The Vail-Leavitt Music Hall on Peconic Avenue.

This year’s Riverhead Blues Festival lost between $7,000 and $8,000, according to board members at the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, which has run the downtown festival as a fundraiser for their nonprofit organization for six of the past seven years.

The festival was brought back this year after a one-year hiatus.

But next year’s Blues Festival may face an even challenge bigger than turning a “profit,” and that’s finding a location, board members discussed at a meeting Wednesday night.

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Vail-Leavitt President Bob Barta and treasurer Vince Tria show off the new digital projector they recently acquired, which will allow Vail-Leavitt to show movies in its upstairs theater.
Bob Barta, the president of Vail-Leavitt’s board, said he spoke with Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter Monday, in the wake of the festival, about problems that are going to arise, especially when it comes to parking, next year.

With the Summerwind apartment and retail building going up next door to the Vail-Leavitt, “we can almost certainly figure that next year, the Blues Festival is not going to take place in the same location,” Mr. Barta said.

“We’d love to keep it downtown, but the problem is where?” he added.

Summerwind is a 52-unit complex now under construction on Peconic Avenue, which backs up to the Peconic River parking lot where the Blues Festival and other concert events currently put their stage.

When the apartment complex opens, that area is likely going to be used for parking for the residents of the apartments, as well as coming restaurants and other retail shops.

Mr. Barta said the western part of the riverfront parking lot isn’t big enough for the festival.

Mr. Walter has actually made this point publicly on several occasions, saying this will not only affect the Blues Festival, but also other downtown events like the Business Improvement District’s Thursday night antique car shows.

At their meeting Wednesday, Vail-Leavitt board members tossed out a number of possible new locations.

The so-called Woolworth parking lot on the north side of downtown Main Street probably doesn’t have enough room, since the western part of the lot is used for parking for the Suffolk County Community College culinary school and other businesses, they said.

Mr. Barta said he brought up the prospect of having the festival at the Enterprise Park at Calverton to Mr. Walter, but the supervisor didn’t think it would get approvals.

“I got the impression the problem there is at the state level,” he said.

Board member Greg “Clutch” Reilly suggested looking for a horse farm or other open space area.

Vince Tria, Vail-Leavitt’s treasurer, who recently turned 80 and said he plans to reduce his role in organizing the event next year, suggested eliminating the vendors and the carnival rides that currently are part of the festival.

The idea of holding the event in Riverhead High School also was brought up, and shot down.

“We can’t have our primary source of income outsourced to the high school,” said board member Stefan Giudici.

Even though it lost money this year, the Blues Festival has been used as the Vail-Leavitt’s primary fundraising event.

Mr. Barta said the path Vail-Leavitt has to take is to establish a “subscription series” of performances that are held inside the historic theater to raise money, with local acts as the openers and more well-known acts as headliners.

The Vail-Leavitt also this week purchased a digital projector system that will allow it to show movies in the upstairs theater, Mr. Barta said.

“How often we show movies will depend on what type of deals we are able to strike with different movie companies that distribute and have the rights to movies,” Mr. Barta said. “It gives us additional flexibility, but I don’t necessarily thing it’s going to be something that will sustain the Vail-Leavitt theater. People have had home video for 30 years now. I don’t think we’re going to be making a living for ourselves as a movie house.”

The projector cost about $1,800 and will hang from the theater’s ceiling, Mr. Tria said.

Had they opted for a more expensive projector that could be located further back, it would have cost four to five times more, Mr. Barta said.

As for this year’s festival, board members agreed that one of the main problems was the timing.

“We didn’t realize when we scheduled it that it would be at the same time as the Mattituck Strawberry Festival, and when we did, it was too late to change it,” Mr. Barta said.

Last year, before deciding not to hold the festival at all, Vail-Leavitt had considered holding the event on the Mattituck Strawberry Fields grounds.

The Blues Festival was always held in July, but this year, it was moved to June.

Of the six Blues Festivals that Vail-Leavitt has run, this is the first one to lose money, Mr. Barta said.

Attendance was down about 40 percent. Ticket prices were at $15 for one day, up from $10 two years ago, the last time it was held, and $25 for both days of the two-day festival.

But he says that not having the festival at all last year helped Vail-Leavitt to learn how to survive without it.

“It was a bigger part of our overall revenue in the past,” he said. “If this had happened in the second or third year we did this, it would have certainly put the Vail-Leavitt theater in much more of a risk situation. But we’ve gotten to the point where we can survive without the festival.”

Money raised by the Blues Festival now is used more to do charitable work, such as holding fundraisers for local residents who have health problems or helping other nonprofit organizations like East End Arts or the Move the Animal Shelter group, Mr. Barta said.

But not having revenue from a festival last year left the group with fewer reserve funds this year, and as a result, organizers weren’t able to publicize it as much in areas outside of Riverhead, Mr. Barta said.

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