Okeechobee Music Festival set for March 5-8, 2020

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival is back!

At their July 25 meeting, the Okeechobee County Commission approved Soundslinger’s request to hold the Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival at Sunshine Grove Thursday, March 5 through Sunday, March 8, 2020.

The preliminary lineup for the annual festival is usually announced in October. Jim Whisenand, a member of the Soundslinger board of directors, said the final lineup will be announced in November.

Insomniac will jointly produce the 2020 OMF.

Mr. Whisenand said the lineup will include a mix of music genres. It will include the popular Jungle 51 venue for nightly Electronic Dance Music concerts.

Music festival fans from all over the United States arrived in Okeechobee in 2018 in anticipation of the opening day of the Okeechobee Music Festival. Photos by Katrina Elsken.

“This festival is unique,” said Mr. Whisenand. “Most music festivals are in urban areas. At Sunshine Grove, we have 600 pristine acres with wooded areas and a lake.” He said the festival even creates a beach for the festival.

OMF is known not only for the concert lineup with three stages during the day and evening and the Jungle 51 through the night, but also for the atmosphere. In the past, many fans have purchased tickets even before the lineup is announced because they come for the OMF experience which includes sunrise yoga, meditation, art displays and performance art. The 2018 festival included a group guided meditation called The Big Quiet, which attracted thousands of participants. Mr. Whisenand said they hope to bring The Big Quiet back in 2020.

The first OMF was held in 2016. In the festival’s first three years:

• The festivals contributed $320,177 to local nonprofit organizations;

• OMF festival provided more than 11,300 meals for the food insecure;

• More than 9,500 pounds of reusable camping gear left behind by fans was donated to homeless veterans;

• Soundslinger paid the county $697,016 in taxes and for support services.

In 2016, the first festival had attendance (paid and unpaid) of 32,290. OMF 2017 attracted 41,268 fans. OMF 2018 attendance was 33,458. The festival sold out all available tickets the first two years. In 2019, the festival took a “fallow” year.

At the Martha’s House booth in Participation Row at the Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival in 2018, fans used handprints to paint a giant mural. Reauna Hinkal of Zephyrhills was one of the participants. Photos by K. Elsken.

Jonathan Bean, of Martha’s House, said the festival provided an opportunity not only for the shelter for victims of domestic violence to raise money and also to interact with thousands festival goers. He said Martha’s House has two missions: to provide services to the victims of domestic violence; and, to help prevent abuse that occurs in families. The festival allowed them to do both.

“We were astounded at the interactions we had,” said Mr. Bean. “People sat with us and shared their quiet moments. Others hand painted on the art projects. There we were Martha’s House having an impact we could not normally have, welcoming locals and outsiders alike and letting them know Okeechobee is a caring community.

“Never in the history of our organization has this opportunity been available to us to share our mission,” Mr. Bean said. “Should the partnership be ended, it would be a great loss to Martha’s House and Okeechobee as well.

Courtney Moyette express support of the festival on behalf Healthy Start and the Okeechobee Substance Abuse Coalition.

The substance abuse coalition has a very small budget, she said. “We have thrived on the fundraising at OMF.”

She said the Substance Abuse Coalition was able to use the money raised at OMF to fund Friday Night Done Right events for local students with free bowling and lazer tag.

The funding that Okeechobee Healthy Start received thanks to their participation in the festival was used to purchase 75 car seats for mothers who needed help, she said.

Mr. Whisenand said the festival has partnered with 15 nonprofits as part of their local give back program. They have offered to increase outreach to the Okeechobee County Fair, the cattlemen’s rodeo and Okeechobee Main Street.

“Nobody on this board has ever been opposed to the music festival,” said Commissioner David Hazellief. “It put Okeechobee on the map.”

He suggested the first weekend in March be reserved for the music festival in the future.

Mr. Whisenand said they cannot commit to a date for 2021 until they assess the financial success and the overall experience of the 2020 festival.

Commission Chair Terry Burroughs said the sheriff and the fire/rescue chief have to contract for resources from agencies outside the county to maintain the level of service needed for the festival weekend. The number of festival fans, volunteers and staff can equal the Okeechobee County’s permanent population of 40,000 people.

The sheriff said he would like to have the comfort level that the festival’s own staff could take care of security on the festival grounds, with security staff inside the festival bringing any problems to deputies outside the gate. The sheriff’s office would handle arresting and transporting individuals to jail, and take care of traffic on the county roads.

“We will do everything humanly possible to make everything run smoothly,” said Mr. Whisenand.

“The chairman and primary owner of the festival have a heartfelt support of the community,” he said.

Chairman Burroughs asked for a strict time line for plans for the festival that impact county staff. He said they are already in a time crunch as the festival application should have been completed in June.

“By Nov. 1, we need to know everything that is going to be happening,” he said.

Mr. Whisenand said they will have a pre-filing meeting with county staff and will have all of the plans filed in September.

John Paxton said as a property owner who lives in the area near the festival grounds, he has no objections.

“Me and my neighbors have been through a few of these and we find the inconvenience is very slight,” he said.

Earlier this year, Soundslinger had floated the idea of moving the festival to March 12-15, to better line up with spring break for colleges in the Southeast. While the dates for college spring break weeks vary, in 2020 the first weekend of March will find 157,035 college students on Spring Break from colleges in the Southeastern United States, while the second weekend will boast 788,197 college students on spring break from the same Southeastern area.

Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen had concerns about his department’s ability to provide security for the festival the second weekend in March, since that would conflict with the annual Speckled Perch Festival and the Okeechobee Cattlemen’s Association Cowtown Rodeo. The Cowtown Rodeo is a Professional Cowboys Association Rodeo (PRCA). To attract the top PRCA contestants, the cattlemen must schedule their event the same weekend as the Arcadia rodeo. The rodeo cowboys are more likely to travel to Florida if they can compete in more than on PRCA rodeo, to earn both cash prizes and points to qualify for national competitions.

“We have never been against the music fest,” said James Colgan, Okeechobee County Cattlemen’s Association president. “The issue is having it on the same weekend as the rodeo. We can’t change our date. It’s based on forces beyond our control.

“We support them 100 percent, just not that weekend,” he said.

Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival fans will pour into Okeechobee County in preparation for the weekend’s camping festival. At the 2017 festival, many fans wore creative and colorful costumes. Photo by Katrina Elsken.

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

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