May 4, 2014

Strawberry Music Festival’s future in limbo

The future of the Strawberry Music Festival is in limbo as organizers hope to change the city of San Francisco’s mind about issuing a permit for the fall festival. The event was canceled last fall because of the Rim fire and had hoped to return this year and be able to refund tickeholders. They have launched a grassroots campaign to get the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department to change its decision on allowing the festival this year.

The Strawberry Music Festival organizers have launched a grassroots campaign to urge the city of San Francisco to allow the popular Sierra Nevada event to return this fall.

The four-day music festival in Camp Mather on the edge of Yosemite National Park in Tuolumne County has been held over Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends for some 30 years. Last year’s August festival was canceled because of the Rim fire, which erupted less than two weeks before the gates were to open and went on to burn more than 250,000 acres.

Festival coordinator and co-founder Charlie Cran said the group had planned to bring the event back over Labor Day weekend this fall. But the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, which manages Camp Mather, has turned down its permit. So organizers are turning to Tuolumne County officials and the public for help to change the city’s mind.

“Bringing the festival back is the right thing to do,” Cran said. “The area’s economy is trying to recover. We’re trying to recover. Everyone in Tuolumne County is working to recover from this disaster since it happened, and the only people who aren’t are the city of San Francisco. There is no real, good legitimate reason to stop us.”

Sarah Ballard, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, said the permit was turned down because of water shortage and forest safety issues. About 6,500 to 7,000 people – between staff and concertgoers – come to Camp Mather for the event.

“The Strawberry Festival is a great tradition and we hope to be able to safely welcome them back next year,” Ballard said in an email response to The Modesto Bee. “While we have received no formal mitigation proposal from the Strawberry Festival, our responsibility is to ensure there is a safe and reliable source of water for both the event and any emergencies. Currently, there is no feasible solution to accommodate 7,000 people.”

None of the 360 acres of Camp Mather were burned in the Rim fire, but Evergreen Road leading to the site was damaged. The road has since reopened, as have surrounding sites such as Dimond O Campground and Evergreen Lodge.

Camp Mather, which is owned and operated by the city, will also reopen at the end of May for its 90th anniversary season. About 5,500 to 6,000 campers come to the site during its 11-week summer season. Only San Francisco residents are allowed to attend the family camp.

Ballard said the water supply, coupled with concerns expressed by the U.S. Forest Service about lingering dangers outside of the campgrounds, makes it unsafe to host the large festival crowd this fall.

Cran said that since the festival started at Camp Mather in 1983, it has dealt with similar issues and he is confident that it could overcome both concerns. He cited a water main break a few years ago, when organizers successfully shipped in all the potable water needed for the campers. He said his staff has already contacted bulk water haulers about working with it for the fall event.

Cran also said the festival has a seasoned security staff, which would increase its patrols and public service announcements about staying out of closed forest areas.

Since Strawberry organizers learned their permit was not approved, Cran said, they have not heard back from the Recreation and Parks Department about plans to mitigate those issues. He said the festival staff has not heard back from anyone in the department, so he has enlisted the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors and County Administrator Craig Pedro in the cause.

The supervisors sent a letter to the city of San Francisco urging officials to allow the festival to proceed this year. Pedro said that while he acknowledged the department’s concerns, he felt confident about organizers’ ability to keep attendees out of dangerous areas. The county has not heard back from San Francisco officials.

“All the areas for people to travel to and be on the property would be safe,” Pedro said. “The concern from Forest Service was people who might wander off into areas where trees are still burned. We understand all of that, but we’ve also had other major fires and forest closures before and the festival has still been able to go on. We’re hoping they’ll look at the history, work with promoters of the event and see what they’re willing to do to mitigate the concerns. We feel that folks would be fine.”

The festival is one of the largest single-event draws in the county each year and is a boon to business as thousands stream into the area. The county is still reeling from the financial impact of the Rim fire, as well as the federal government shutdown that came directly on its heels.

Pedro said it’s difficult to calculate how much the disaster hurt the county financially, but it was down at least $200,000 in hotel occupancy tax from the year before.

Further complicating the financial picture is a disaster relief funding from the Small Business Administration, which festival organizers were approved for in January. The money would be used to refund people for last August’s canceled event. Because of operating costs and other expenses, the festival staff has not been able to pay back all those who bought tickets last year. But the SBA money to do so will not come through until the event receives its permit for this year.

“There is no future without that (SBA funding),” said Strawberry staff member Jodi Barnett. “We have an obligation to our customers. Stressful is too little a word to describe what is happening now. We’re in a unique circumstance we’ve never been in before.”

Over the years, the festival staff has negotiated its permit with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, usually in five-year contracts. The current contract expired last August, so a new one had to be signed. Per last year’s contract, the festival was set to pay $99,000 to the city for its permit. They agreed on the same amount this year before it was pulled.

Barnett and Cran said their main frustration is a lack of communication with parks department officials, particularly General Manager Phil Ginsburg. They said they never received the reasons for the permit rejection in writing, and have not been able to talk with anyone in the office to see what can be done to get approval.

So now they are asking the community to help contact officials in San Francisco urging them to reconsider and allow the festival to go forward. Organizers launched a website, www.savestrawberrymusicfest.com, late last month that includes information about their situation and targets a letter-writing campaign at San Francisco officials.

The festival draws music lovers from across Northern California and beyond each year. Cran, who was raised in Modesto and graduated from Downey High School along with two of his fellow festival founders, said already hundreds of people have responded to their campaign to save Strawberry.

“We’re working in the court of public opinion now,” he said. “We will fight until the bitter end for this festival.”

For more on the Save Strawberry Music Festival campaign, go to www.strawberrymusic.com or call (209) 984-8630.

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