by Bob Doran
Dimmick given two more weeks to raise a bundle
The folks behind Reggae Rising, the annual music festival on the Eel River, came before the Humboldt County Planning Commission June 3, seeking permit approval and asked for a little more time to get their money straight. They got the time -- a decision was postponed until June 17 -- but not the approval, not yet anyway -- and some bombs were dropped along the way. Festival management will be outsourced and if things don't work out -- the whole festival might be outsourced -- Reggae Rising could move out of Humboldt.
If the commission had had more time to talk about it, things might have gone differently, but Reggae was just one of three hot button issues on the agenda for June 3: The meeting room was packed with people there to weigh in on a controversial permit for a marijuana clinic in Myrtletown and/or the Forester-Gill Ridgewood Village development in Cutten.
It happens around this time every year: Reggae organizers must have the Planning Commission sign off on their annual report and set an attendance level for the next fest. For many years it was routine. Then in 2006 Reggae troubles began as a war raged over control. The annual permit reviews have not been the same since.
Ultimately the festival on the Eel split in two with a renamed Reggae Rising on the old site and a smaller Reggae on the River downriver. A lawsuit ensued in the process and when it was finally settled, Tom Dimmick ended up with a festival and a mountain of debt, including a half million owed to the nonprofit Mateel Community Center.
Among the details laid out last night in the staff report from planner Michael Richardson: The Reggae Rising permit runs until 2015. Last year 14,400 people were allowed at the event. Richardson began by noting that last year's festival brought in $600,000 gross for area nonprofits and had a $2 million impact on the county as a whole. He also noted that there were "financial troubles" as a result of "the national downturn."
Nevertheless Dimmick was able to pay off the Mateel. There were however, a lot of other people who were not paid -- including a bunch of government agencies -- and that created problems.
According to Richardson, condition for approval of the report mainly requires implementation of mitigation measures. A third party assessment of adherence to ticket numbers was required. It was turned in late, not until the day of the meeting, but was a "glowing report." A requested Water Quality Report detailing the effect of sunscreen on the river was also turned in late. Overall there were no major operational problems.
However, by now Dimmick was supposed to supply letters of support from all concerned agencies -- the County Health Dept., CHP, the Sheriff, among others -- and only one agency had submitted a letter, Cal-Fire. Theirs said everything's OK; proceed, assuming everyone else signs off.
As a result of the missing letters, Richardson deemed the report "insufficient" overall and recommended continuation until July 1. (Reggae Rising is scheduled for August 6-8.)
Before further discussion, one of the commissioners reported that he had an ex parte communication earlier in the day with a concerned party, Craig Perrone, a vendor, complaining that he had not been paid. Two other commissioners had also been called by Perrone, from Del Reka Distributing, beverage supplier for Reggae.
This led to a general discussion of the outstanding debt. Dennis Mayo, new to the commission, wondered if agencies not being paid on time was normal. No, it was not, said Richardson. His further assumption was that the agencies were withholding approval because they were not paid.
Who did not get paid? The Sheriff, the Calif. Highway Patrol (CHP), Richardson's Grove State Park, consultants, vendors and event staff, said Richardson.
For another commissioner the question of who got paid and who did not was immaterial -- he figured planning's job was only to decide on the land use issue. Community Development head man Kirk Girard concurred noting that the debt is only important in that it's blocking agencies from doing their job.
Commissioner Krebs said he'd suggest giving Dimmick some time, say 30 days, to get his money together. If he fails, staff could then stop the event -- without direct action from the commission.
Commissioner Bruce Emad weighed in saying, "We've had trouble" in the past, specifically with a failure to pay Jerold Phelps Hospital. Clearly he added, "If they're not smart enough to pay the CHP and the Sheriff... It boggles the mind." His solution: Demand full payment of all agencies and accounts plus a $250,000 escrow account to ensure that everyone gets paid this year. "I've heard their promises. It disgusts me," he concluded.
Applicant Tom Dimmick was up next. "This is my fourth year... Here we go," he began. According to Dimmick, the 2009 Reggae Rising "went well." He had over 14,000 people on his ranch; there were no traffic problems; nonprofits took in $400,000. While an "emotional lawsuit" resulted in a great debt, he had paid the Mateel $500,000. He said overall 2009 was a "modest financial success," but 2007 and 2008 were not: he'd had losses well over $100,000. When he assumed those losses (in a split with co-producers People Productions) he'd taken out a "multi-million dollar line of credit," but he'd since had a 30 percent reduction in that credit line due to "global" financial troubles.
At this point, he said, he is "very optimistic" that he'll get additional funding in the next two weeks that will allow him to catch up with all back debts. He said he realizes, "If I can't make good, [the agencies] will not support" his permit.
He did not say so, but he has also lost most of his event coordinators, the crew leaders who had been running the festival since long before he got involved and stood by him through the Reggae War. No one asked, but many have been wondering, how will he proceed without them?
The answer was the first big bomb of the evening. He said he has contracted a "bonded event operator" from outside the area "to facilitate the internal operations of Reggae Rising," specifically the San Luis Obispo-based firm, Miller Event Management. Dimmick said the firm's clients include the High Sierra Music Festival in Plumas County and Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix MotoGP World Championship at Laguna Seca.
According to the website for the HarvestMoon Presents and Mason Associates, consortium member Jim Miller of Miller Event Management, "has over 20 years of experience in event management with involvement in all types of festivals, concerts, and special events. Their extensive staff of qualified managers and staff are experienced to manage a variety of entertainment services including security, parking and traffic, medical/first aid, ticket gate operations, camping management and volunteer management."
Miller will not manage all of those functions at Reggae Rising. Dimmick said traffic control will be handled by Mercer Fraser, the construction company that mines gravel on the Dimmick Ranch, and medical services will once again be done by Jah Med, "pending a financial arrangement."
Dimmick also said he'd tried to coordinate a meeting with all the concerned agencies where they could met Miller and ask questions, but "unfortunately" they were "unable or unwilling to attend" since they had not yet been paid for 2009. He reiterated his belief that he'll be able to pull together an investment group within two weeks and have an all agency meeting June 14 or 23. Dimmick concluded by asking for "approval of the event."
Asked if he understood the deficiencies in his filing, Dimmick apologized for the "hiccup" that led to a delay on the Water Quality and noted that a third-party engineer had signed off on last year's numbered wristband system.
Asked if he would be able to establish a quarter million dollar escrow, Dimmick said that would "be pushing it," but he promised to pay everyone off, and pay a 100 percent deposit -- pre-pay all agencies for this year.
When Dennis Mayo expressed concern that the police agencies and vendors had not been paid and worried that the festival will cost the taxpayers money, Dimmick said he'd actually paid out a "mind boggling" amount of money retiring past-due debt. "I've put everything I've got into it and we'll see it through to the end," he said with resolve.
Commissioner Nelson asked about ticket cost and sales, Dimmick said they were $10 more, $109, up from $99, and slow compared to last year. Has he hired "groups"? He's booked 12 acts so far. "Have you filed for bankruptcy?" No, said Dimmick, admitting he'd thought about it. "I will see this through," he repeated.
Nelson concluded with a pointed question: "If you can't get your line of credit, what will you do?" Dimmick paused, then announced, "If I am unable to secure a line of credit to secure agency support within the 30 days, I have secured a back-up venue outside of Humboldt County."
And with that hanging in the air, the commission moved on to public input including opinions from a candidate for Sheriff, the CHP, an ex-staff Reggae member and Dimmick's neighbor Keith Bowman, along with a report on the difficulty of testing for sunscreen pollution -- and a non-decision.
Public comment began with Sonny (or perhaps Sunny) Anderson, who'd been sitting behind Dimmick when he spoke. Anderson said he's not happy that ag land has been repurposed as a party site. Pointing out that a 21-year-old woman died at the festival last year (Molly Donovan was found dead in at her camp on Monday morning following last year's fest), he complained that "people party to the max," and suggested downsizing to a festival size more like at Benbow (Benbow State Recreation Area where Reggae on the River is now held).
Next up with Undersheriff Mike Downey, who is running to replace retiring Sheriff Gary Philp. Downey said he's been involved in the festival a long time, since 1987, as have others in the audience. While it's true the Sheriff's department has not been paid, he said, "It's not strictly about money, it's about public trust," giving praise for those who ran the festival in the past, but not for the current operator. Downey figures it will be "difficult" to get things together given a 30 days from the fest window, noting, "By this time we've had our meetings and know where we stand." Stating flatly, "We will not participate," until the back debt is paid, he said he's "concerned for the safety of those who will attend."
Michelle Gardner from Richardson's Grove State Park, right next to the Reggae site, was next to complain about not being paid. She said the park needs to increase staff at Reggae time to fend off illegal campers, which will be difficult since their budget has been cut by the state. As a result of the cuts, the park has closed the Oak Flat Campground, reducing the number of camping spots from 170 to 70. Gardener also noted that she'd been willing to attend a proposed meeting with Dimmick (and presumably Miller) but no time was ever set.
Next came harsh words from Adam Jager of the Calif. Highway Patrol who said he's been working Reggae for 20 years. Jager said the CHP has given Dimmick a "long leash," letting him go three years without a payment. A partial payment, 50 percent, was finally made, but the check bounced. While there's still a $28,000 debt outstanding, he echoed Downey, saying, "It's not about the money," and noted that no advance planning had been made. He also pointed out that the high school has not been paid for the use of school buses and wondered how people will be shuttled to the event.
Jager went on to talk of the change in the nature of the Reggae crowd in recent years, saying it's no longer a "family" event. "It's kind of scary," he said. "It's not Volkswagens and peace signs, it's gang members." He's concerned about a new management company coming in. He also said he'd spoken with someone from Mercer Fraser and they have no contract with Dimmick, only a verbal agreement. He said he'd asked Dimmick how many tickets have been sold and was told 2,000. He's worried that a last minute cancellation could result in people coming and finding no festival, "a nightmare." Asked by Mayo if he thinks Dimmick can pull it together, he said flatly, no, suggesting that the commission reject the application for this year and look ahead to a safe event for 2011.
Jeff Hedin from the Piercy VFD spoke next saying the fire district wants it's back money, $4,340, plus a $2,000 down payment for 2010 before they'll sign off -- but they will work for the festival,
A previously mentioned water quality report came next from water analyst Curtis Miller. His take was that there's "not much impact" on the river from the festival, mainly because the water quality is "already wrecked" at that time of year from algae that's already present. Apparently he'd also been asked to look into the impact of potentially toxic sunscreen washed from attendees' bodies. While there are tests that could determine how much gets into the river, they are very costly and in his opinion, not worth it. His ironic suggestion: Use less sunscreen.
Paul Radman, a 22-year Reggae veteran, spoke next. He's been on traffic control for 16 years and helped work out the successful plan that gets vehicles on site without holding up traffic. He began by saying he did not come "for sabotage" even though he has not been paid. His concern was with the critical incident team, the high level crew that troubleshoots big troubles during the fest. They'd lost long time members last year including Diana Totten, and no one from the past was onboard for this year because no one got paid. As a result there will be "no continuum" with the agencies. Last year they'd had a late start and were "up against the wall;" he thinks this year it could be worse since there's not enough time to prepare. His suggestion: skip Reggae Rising 200 and get ready for 2011.
According to Vernon Callahan from Caltrans (who said he also worked on the traffic plan), Caltrans was actually paid. He's still concerned about "changing horses" with a new management team and would like to see Radman and David Moss, head of last year's Critical Incident Team remain involved. "I think this thing should stay local," he opined, rather than turning it over to "outsiders."
Next up was Keith Bowman, owner of seven parcels adjacent to the Dimmick Ranch including Cook's Valley Campground. No surprise: He's in "complete support of Reggae Rising." Even though he too is owed money, he said he's wiling to help with the event and financing. He's met with the Miller crew and thinks they "know what they're doing." His prediction: "It will be trying, but it will be run well." He discounted the report on gang activity from CHP saying he had nothing worse than a fistfight in his campground. He doesn't think the fact that Oak Flat in the State Park is closed will be an issue. He also pointed to continued support from the Mendocino Sheriff (his campground is over the border, not in Humboldt County).
While he feels bad about those who were not paid, Bowman figures that expensive positions like Dave "Mossman" Moss and Joe Moran helped explain Dimmick's losses. He asked the commission to "give us 30 days" or even 15 days to pull things together. He also noted that the festival will probably be smaller this year -- only 8,000-10,000 -- although it was unclear if he was predicting lower ticket sales or suggesting that the attendance number be reduced. In his opinion, the problems were not just monetary, but "a lack of communication" which "must change radically."
The last public comment came from bearded Robert Benson, a self-described "Deadhead" who had not actually come to the meeting to talk about Reggae. He offered his opinions anyway. He'd heard good things about the Miller group or at least has heard that the High Sierra Festival is run well and he'd been to races at Laguna Seca. His main point was that there was a danger in skipping a year of Reggae Rising: "If you pull the plug, it might not came back."
With that the ball returned to staff. There was a request for a show of hands to see who wanted to speak on the marijuana clinic application and on the Cutten development. Seeing many, and with an eye on the clock, Kirk Girard suggested continuing the Reggae item until June 17 or 24 to see if the letters from agencies come in.
Unlike many on the commissioners, Bruce Emad has been dealing with the Reggae juggernaut for years. "We have created a monster, he declared. "Mr. Dimmick is very, very persuasive," he added as if to explain why the commission has allowed things to get out of hand, "but enough is enough." Complaining that Dimmick "sold $200,000 in tickets and gave the money to whoever," he said he's opposed to letting the festival go forward.
Commissioner Faust said he agreed with Emad for the most part. "We, the county, have created an attractive nuisance," in letting things go to far, he said. But in the end he was a bit softer and suggested giving Dimmick more time to get his ducks in a row. "If nothing changes in two weeks -- pull the plug," he concluded, setting a June 17 deadline. "No more excuses. All conditions must be met."
Emad got the last word in. Pointing out that all sorts of county services are being cut due to budget constraints, he said he does not want to subsidize Dimmick's festival. Reiterating the demand that everyone must be paid before Reggae Rising moves forward, he agreed to the June 17 deadline and made a motion to that effect. After a unanimous vote the commission moved on to the relatively less contentious issue of where you might place a marijuana clinic.