Lessons from 2016 OMF will help improve 2017 festival

OKEECHOBEE — Plans for the 2017 Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival (OMF) were discussed Thursday, as the Okeechobee County Commission heard comments from the public and from festival organizers about the 2016 fest.

Commission Chairman Frank Irby said county officials have been meeting with the promoters after the festival, which was held the first weekend in March. They are using what they learned from the first event to make improvements for future festivals.

Cliff Rosen, one of the festival organizers, expressed his thanks to county staff, sheriff’s department, fire department and EMS.

“The public may not be aware of the time and effort and focus and personal care that all of these agencies and personnel took in making it happen,” he said.

“It went really well because of the planning and the care,” Mr. Rosen said. He added that the sheriff’s office personnel were strict “but at the end of the day it created a safe and enjoyable festival.”

“The idea came first, and from the idea was planning, budgeting, funding, creating, designing, booking and execution,” said Steve Sybesma, Founder and CEO at Soundslinger, LLC.

Over two years, it was a massive undertaking, he said.

“We produced one of the best first year festivals ever,” he said. One of the best music festivals in the world was held right here in Okeechobee County, he said.

“We had a generally wonderful, well-behaved group of people,” he continued.

Festival visitors came from 48 states and from 39 different countries.

“People came to enjoy themselves, to make new friends, to enjoy the music, and they did,” he said. “It was nice group of people who came, well behaved, there to have fun.”

The festival averaged 32,536 attendees per day. The median age was 25, but the crowd also included families with children and infants. The oldest fan was 75.

The event included 135 artists, DJs and musicians performing on six stages, with round-the-clock entertainment.

The OMF website has 1.6 million website impressions.

Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Ninety-eight percent of the people who came to the festival enjoyed it, and are looking forward to combing back,” Mr. Sybesma said. That 98 percent also reported they would recommend the festival to their friends.

Almost every newspaper in Florida covered the OMF. Major media such as the New York Times, Billboard Magazine and Rolling Stone also covered the event.

More than 375 articles were written, and coverage received more than 920 million views.

Economic impact

According to statistics presented at the Thursday County Commission meeting, the OMF 2016 had an increase in economic impact in Okeechobee County of $16.4 million.

Thousands of people found work for the four days of the festival.

Approximately $1.5 million was generated in taxes for state and local governments.

Soundslinger spent $2.8 million in Okeechobee County and $2.5 million in the rest of Florida preparing for the event.

The festival donated $2 per ticket sold to charity, with part of that money going to Okeechobee Communities In Schools.

The beverage vendor gave non-profit organizations a chance to make money by running beverage booths. Local organizations including CASTLE and the BRAT Club were among those participating.

“The overall benefit to Okeechobee County is undeniable,” said Mr. Sybesma.

“For us it’s a long term investment to build something to make it better,” he said. “We will continue to work with the city, the county and the tourist development association to work with local businesses.

“We are part of your community,” he said.

“We will always do our best to improve and to make this a better event, and something good for Okeechobee,” Mr. Sybesma said.

Problem areas

“We know there are issues,” said Okeechobee County Planning Director Bill Royce.

“A lot of the issues we discussed even before the festival began,” he continued.

“We know there are going to be traffic issues. We know there are going to be noise issues. We will be working to address those the best we can.”

Several residents from the Dark Hammock area voiced complaints about the festival, while others said they did not have a problem with the event.

“I have lived out in that area of almost 40 years,” said Shirley Wildes.

“I didn’t get any sleep for about three nights with cars coming up Dark Hammock Road,” she said.

She said when the traffic was “jammed up at U.S. 441, they started coming through the neighborhood. “They had signs up. They were not supposed to come through the neighborhood,” she said.

“If they want to take and rent a room for everyone who lives out there and take care of the animals. I will be ready to go to a motel,” Mrs. Wildes said.

Bryan Holden, who also lives in the area near the music festival grounds, read a letter from his neighbor Kelly Bass who was unable to attend Thursday’s meeting.

“The music festival provided people to pick up garbage along the roadway, but I had to pick up garbage that blew into my pasture,” Mrs. Bass wrote.

“The bass rattled our windows,” she wrote. “I was exhausted and sleep deprived.”

Mr. Holden said another neighbor also sent a written message: “The main issues are noise, the dust, and the guy from LA whose lyrics were mainly made up of shouting (obscenity) into the microphone.”

Mr. Holden said the main problem he had with the festival was trespassing.

“When you plug the address of the music fest into the GPS a lot of times they guide you on the shortest distance,” he said. In this case, apparently GPS was guiding people onto private property. “These vehicles started coming down into my yard, past the no-tresspassing signs,” he said.

He said he tried shutting the gate to his property, and came home the next day to find a semi driver had opened the gate, entered the property and then “rutted up” the yard turning around, and left.

“I went down and put a sign in the middle of the road,” he continued. “That kind of helped the problem until the last night. My wife had to fly out of state at 2 a.m.

When she got to the gate, there was a car nosed up to the gate where she couldn’t get out. At 2 a.m., she had to walk up to a strange car parked at our gate and ask him to move.”

“We live across from gate four and it was terrible,” said Charlene Hicks. “The windows in our house shook nonstop.

“The traffic was terrible,” she said.

“People bought out on Dark Hammock road because they want country,” she said. “They don’t want to hear traffic. They don’t want to hear ugly words. They don’t want to hear the beating of the bass.”

John Paxon had a different view of the OMF.

“I live a mile west of where the event was held,” he said. “I didn’t have any traffic problems. I came in Friday night. I had to wait 15 minutes to get in.”

“I sat on my front porch and watched the event,” Mr. Paxon continued. “I didn’t see any traffic problems.

“We did hear music and watched the light show.

“It wasn’t all that disturbing,” he said. “In fact it was kind of interesting.”

He said the workers and business owners he spoke to in Okeechobee said it did have a financial benefit. Employees at Publix and Walmart worked extra hours. Those who actually worked at the festival were well paid, he continued.

Mr. Paxon said he is a Florida native and moved to Okeechobee in 1983.

“When I got to Okeechobee, the road at Dark Hammock didn’t even go all the way through from 441 to 70,” he said.

“But civilization is growing. That’s just the way it goes. I can’t see getting excited about it.”

“I talked to people who were outraged by the noise,” he said. “I talked to people who lived 100 yards away who weren’t upset.”

“If I hunted somebody up and told them they need to put some signs somewhere, it happened,” he continued. “As far as going past a no trespassing sign, I did that for years in an 18-wheeler when I had to get where I was going.”

Joshua Rhoden said he lives near gate 4, and had issues with the loud music and with people parking in his driveway.

“I had to endure lights through my windows all night,” he said.

“You should think about the people who have to endure this, and what they have to do when they go to work to do their jobs,” ha said.

“I own the ranch to the north side of Mr. Rosen’s property,” said George Cooper. “I had some tickets so I gave them to my grandkids to go to the music festival. My son-in-law  bought tickets. He wanted to go. He’s 50-something years old.”

“Every one of them who went said it was the best, the happiest, the nicest, the cleanest neatest music festival they had ever been to,” he said.

“They came down and they cleaned up where people threw trash out by my gate,” he said. “They did a great job.

“The people who put it on, I thought and my family thought they did a great job,” Mr. Cooper said. “I think we ought to be proud of that.”

William Mason, who owns property at Sundance Trails said he is not fond of music festivals, but he spent the weekend there on his land.

“On Friday night out there, I woke up at 12 o’clock with a pain I had not ever had before,” he said. He went to the Raulerson Hospital Emergency Room and found it had been well staffed in anticipation of the festival, but they didn’t get the demand they expected.

“I was in there by myself in the emergency room,” he said.

Mr. Mason said he was not bothered by the loud music.

“I have 10 acres northwest of the ferris wheel. The bandstand they had in the woods was even closer. I had deer laying out there in my open pasture,” he recalled. “The noise didn’t bother me at all.”

“I did have one infraction on my property,” he said. “A guy pitched his tent there. After I tore it down, he came back. He was one of the nicest fellows. I made a friend.”

“I thought it was awesome,” he concluded.

Gordie Peer said he remembers Woodstock, and he was hoping to hear some of the music from the festival at his house.

“I sat there all night long and never heard a thing, so I went to bed,” he said.

The commissioners told residents county staff will work with the OMF organizers to address or alleviate the problems.

Commissioner Byrant Culpepper said Mrs. Bass called him during the festival, and he offered her the use of the guest room at his house.

He said businesses did see an increase during the OMF. Racetrack said they were $17,000 over what they normally sell, Commissioner Culpepper said.

“Posey’s Corner was overwhelmed.

“Publix’ market said they were sending over 750 subs a day just to feed the volunteers plus pallets of bottled water,” he continued.

“I live on the Kissimmee River and during frogging season, I have airboats all up and down. They’re loud, but I put on my iPod and I go back to bed,” he explained.

“The bigger picture is we have to do things creative so we can create the tax funds so that we can provide you with the services,” he said.

“This board took a big chance and we knew we were going to catch heat about it. They’ll make adjustments and the next one will be better.”

“If I had to experience some of the things that Mrs. Hicks talked about and Mr. Holden talked about, I would be upset too,” said Commissioner Terry Burroughs. “These are things that we need to address.

“I was out there about 20 hours to see it for myself.

“Do we have things we need to work on? Absolutely,” he said. “We also have the responsibility for a lot of other people in the community.”

“I think because the organization of the first music festival was so well done, that Mr. Rosen and his team will work on the problems,” said Commission Chair Frank Irby.

“I went every day,” he said. “The people were extremely cordial. Very friendly.”

“The sheriff and EMS folks I talked to were just shocked at how nice the crowds were.

“I have been at football games that were significantly worse than that crowd was.

“It was a very well organized, very coordinated thing,” Chairman Irby said.

“From your input, I think it will be better next year.”

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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