One of Rochester's popular summer festivals has come under fire.
A group of residents and business owners in the East End has petitioned the city of Rochester to review the status of the East End Music Festival in hopes of making changes or shutting it down.
The festival, now in its 21st year, is held on the first or second Friday in June, July and August. The event features music, food, drinks and other vendors. Organizers close down East Avenue from Gibbs Street to Matthews Street, charging admission for people to enter.
Craig Zicari, who lives in the Sagamore on East and serves on the board of Rochester Contemporary Art Center on East Avenue, is a lead organizer of the group of residents and business owners. The group includes representatives of Rochester Contemporary, Java's Cafe, Metro Salon, the Rochester Club Ballroom, Bernunzio Uptown Music, the Inn on Broadway, Greenwood Books and a few others, he said.
"When the festival started around 20 years ago, the East End was a different place," Zicari said. "It was an attempt to get people to come into the neighborhood. Over time it's morphed into the event you see nowadays."
Michael Calabrese, owner of Java's, said the festival has become a poor representation of the neighborhood.
"There's been grumblings about this ever since it turned into a frat party," he said. "It's strictly about how much beer can they sell in a six-hour period. At the beginning it was a festival to introduce people to all the businesses in the East End. You could bring family down and get to know all the different businesses. It's not like that anymore."
Gary Walker, director of the city's bureau of communications and special events, said that while he understands some of the business owners' concerns, he also sees the other side.
"We have two great assets here, and we want to preserve both," Walker said. "There is a solid core of businesses that have moved into the East End in recent years. The scale of that neighborhood is changing. However, the festival was there before a lot of these businesses were and was responsible for drawing people to the neighborhood in the first place."
One main gripe for the people such as Zicari and Calabrese is the voting process required for the festival to take place.
Walker said for a festival such as the East End Music Festival to happen, 60 percent of the property owners whose property falls within the festival area must approve it. The same rule applies to the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, which also takes place in the East End.
More than 15 businesses have front doors within the area of East Avenue and some adjacent streets that is shut down for the East End Music Festival.
The organizers for the festival have the task of collecting the vote. However, Calabrese has questioned the process. Java's has been listed in the past as giving a yes vote, though, he said, he never signed a form.
"They would go around getting signatures from anyone they could, except the business owners," Calabrese said. "It always seemed like they had all these signatures every year. But all of us business owners started to talk and could never actually figure out who voted yes."
Calabrese said he is confident that if the voting process were regulated better, the festival would not be approved.
"I have no doubt that if they do a legitimate vote, there will not be an East End (Music) Festival next year," he said.
However, Walker said the 60 percent voting process may soon become irrelevant.
"I have never been in favor of the 60 percent vote process," he said. "I've always thought that it was more suited for a neighborhood-sponsored block party. A festival has a lot more riding on it."
Walker said the voting process for all city festivals was going to be under review this year anyway. Instead of 60 percent approval, he said, he favors city government having exclusive approval over festivals-though he did acknowledge that the city already is in charge of approving permits for festivals.
John Hutchings, owner of the Downtown Fitness Club on Chestnut Street and lead organizer for the festival, declined to comment on any disagreement surrounding the festival. He said he did not want to take attention away from the jazz festival, which starts today.
Zicari said he has met with Hutchings in the past and expressed concerns about problems such as noise. He has asked the organizers to consider moving the festival toward Chestnut Street, like the jazz festival, so residents would not have to deal with loud outdoor music.
For the next event, on July 13, the festival's website lists four stages and nine bands, with music from 6 to 11 p.m.
"It's a significant amount of noise for the people in the apartments," Zicari said. "Some of those people have children. I had one woman who lives there email me and say she has to take her children somewhere else until 11 p.m."
To that Walker said the festival has been in the East End for more than two decades.
"The festival folks argue that they were there before the businesses got there and that they knew the festival existed before they moved in," he said. "Also, with any festival you're going to have noise."
Walker also said he was worked with Hutchings on making several changes to the festival in recent years to accommodate the growing concern, such as going from six stages of music performers to four and moving stages slightly farther away from the Sagamore, at East and Scio Street.
Another major complaint from business owners that Walker agreed is reasonable is that the festival charges people a fee to enter that section of East Avenue, whether they are there for the event or not.
Blue Cease, executive director of Rochester Contemporary, said he estimates the gallery loses some $500 each time the festival shuts down the street.
"They shut down a public space and charge people to get access to it," Cease said. "Think about people who just want to come to the gallery. They can't get here because there's a fence in front of our front doors."
Walker said the city spoke with the festival about getting rid of the entrance fee after last year's festivals and is looking into it further for next year.
Organizers of the East End Music Festival have reached out for support on the festival's Facebook page.
Roughly a week after this year's first event, held June 1, posts began appearing on the festival's Facebook page stating that a "small group of residents" was aiming to shut down the festival. The posts did not say who had put them up, but Facebook lists the administrators of the page as Hutchings and Joe Gizzie, owner of the Easy on East nightclub and bar on East Avenue.
The posts called for fans of the page to post comments and email letters of support to Hutchings so they could be forwarded to City Hall. As of mid-June, the posts collectively had received some 70 comments, along with more than 90 likes. More than 110 users shared the posts on their personal Facebook pages.
The majority of those offering support for the festival commented on how much they like the music and how it brings culture downtown. Several also pointed out that the festival is just three nights a year.
Walker agreed that the festival does have major benefits for the Rochester community.
"We're talking about bringing 10,000 people downtown," he said. "There are economic benefits to consider. Yes, the neighborhood is changing, but the festival is responsible for some of those changes."
Franlee Frank, who owns Greenwood Books on East Avenue, said she opened her bookstore on the night of the East End Music Festival on June 5, 1998. She routinely has voted no to the festival. However, she understands the opposite view.
"If 10,000 people want the festival to happen, I've come to deal with one night of slow business," she said.
Still, she said, she would vote no to the festival happening if the 60 percent voting process continued as is.
"It doesn't benefit my business," Frank said. "They say it draws people to the businesses in the neighborhood, but the people that come to the East End (Music) Festival are here to drink. During the jazz festival, we get people who stop into the businesses. During the East End Festival, we don't."
Walker said the city will continue to review its process of granting permits and approving festivals over the summer. In the meantime, he said, he would like to bring the East End Music Festival organizers together with the neighborhood business owners in hopes of finding a middle ground.
"I believe that if everyone can come to a table with an open mind, we can make some changes to allow the neighborhood to continue to grow and allow the festival to continue to bring people into the city and give the city vibrant life," he said.
6/15/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.