Blues festival may be leaving Charleston
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Local blues fans may have to head a little farther west if they want to catch the Charlie West Blues Fest next year. According to West Virginia Blues Society president Jack Rice, the city of Charleston isn't particularly interested in keeping the event.
Over the phone, Rice laid out a list of complaints over this year's event.
"The city won't work with us," he said. "The city has reduced funding by 90 percent. We went from $25,000 to $2,500. They wouldn't sell our vendors water, which forced us to reduce our event from three days down to two days.
"The Convention and Visitors Bureau didn't honor all of their sponsorship commitments. They were supposed to advertise the festival regionally and nationally. They put ads on two local television stations and two local radio stations."
Rice said the city has treated the festival unfairly compared to other events.
"The city cut the water to the bathrooms," he complained. "They came down and cut down one of our banners -- the banner for one of our major sponsors -- and told us it was blocking the stage. It was in the same place it was last year, but they said if we put it back up, they'd cut our power."
Rod Blackstone, senior assistant to Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, disagreed with almost everything Rice said -- at least in regards to the city.
Blackstone said the city never promised $25,000 and thought that might be an argument Rice had with the city's convention and visitors bureau.
In fact, Blackstone said, the city never promised any money. Instead, he said the city promised to cover the costs of their services, which ran in excess of $20,000.
"The city provided overtime costs for police, paramedics, refuse collectors, street department, electricians and park and recreation workers," he said. "The city of Charleston never promised more than that."
The Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau had no comment regarding Rice or the Charlie West Blues Fest. A representative said, "We don't offer comments on events that aren't ours. Charlie West isn't ours."
Rice said negotiations with the city of Huntington are ongoing, but he said they seem very interested in having the blues festival at Harris Riverfront Park.
"We've had one preliminary meeting," he said. "We have another meeting scheduled to talk about logistics, but we've already checked out the date. They're willing to hold it for us, have offered us free water and they're fine with us being a ticketed event."
The blues festival's Facebook page has a post from June 29 stating, "Well, it's now official, the 7th Annual Charlie West Blues Fest will be held in Huntington, WV at Harris Riverfront Park!"
Now in its sixth year, Rice said the festival has been growing steadily. Its budget is now more than $100,000, he said, and as many as 30,000 people attended the annual Armed Services Day weekend event. He said events that size have an obvious and meaningful economic impact
"We had 17 hours of national and international acts, a free event," Rice said. "If the city can't support us, then we'll go where they will."
Rice said the blues society doesn't really want to keep the event as free. He pointed out that in its first three years (at Coonskin Park, South Charleston's Oakes Field and Appalachian Power Park respectively), the festival was a ticketed event.
But after the festival moved to Haddad Riverfront Park in 2011, the city told the blues society it couldn't charge admission, because Betty Schoenbaum said she'd only fund the construction of the stage there if all events held on it were free to the public.
Rice said he's known Schoenbaum for years. He called her in Florida and asked him about it. He said Schoenbaum told him, "I don't care what you do with the stage."
Blackstone said "I guess you can blame me for the fest being free and open to the public. It's impractical to hold an event at Schoenbaum Stage and try to charge admission. I think they tried that during one of the Regattas. It doesn't work.
"So the city of Charleston became an official sponsor; we provided our costs, and it was free to everyone."
Blackstone went on to say that the policy concerning the banner at the stage was about respect for the contribution of Betty Schoenbaum.
"No banners are permitted to cover up the Schoenbaum name on the stage," he said. "We're talking about a family that has contributed nearly a half million dollars to make that the premier venue in the city, so no banners are allowed to cover that name up.
"I'm sorry he disagrees with that."
Rice said he'd prefer not to take the festival out of Charleston, but at the moment, the only way it seemed possible to him to stay would be if the University of Charleston stepped in.
"That would be something leadership from the Charlie West Blues Fest would have to bring to leadership over here, but I don't know," UC spokesman Scott Castleman said Thursday.
Blackstone said he was sorry to see the blues fest go.
"Well, it was a nice event while it was on the Schoenbaum Stage these last two years. Before that, it wandered around three different venues in the valley. I'm sorry he found our support unacceptable."
Reach Bill Lynch at email@example.com or 304-348-5195.