X-Fest organizer pulls plug on Modesto, takes music to Stockton

2015 X Fest in Modesto

The 2015 X Fest music festival in downtown Modesto California which featured Waka Flaca Flame, Moonshine Bandits, and Tech N9ne on August 22, 2015. (John Westberg/jwestberg@modbee.com)
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The 2015 X Fest music festival in downtown Modesto California which featured Waka Flaca Flame, Moonshine Bandits, and Tech N9ne on August 22, 2015. (John Westberg/jwestberg@modbee.com)

The long-running downtown Modesto music festival known as X-Fest is moving to Stockton.

Xclamation Festival founder Chris Ricci announced Wednesday that the one-day outdoor event is relocating to San Joaquin County Fairgrounds on Aug. 20.

Ricci and Modesto officials were in a prolonged battle this year about keeping the 16-year event in the city. Ricci ultimately prevailed in April with the City Council granting his permit contingent of several safety caveats.

But then this week, Ricci announced that he had entered into a partnership with the Stockton fairgrounds to host the event, which routinely brought 15,000 people each year to the streets of Modesto. He cited increased costs from the proposed safety plan as the main reason for the change.

“I am very disappointed that we’re having to move it. Modesto is my home, Modesto is where this event grew up. It is incredibly disappointing that the government couldn’t figure out a way for this event to work for the people,” Ricci said.

The council’s permit approval, given after a four-hour discussion April 26, hinged on local law enforcement officials finalizing a safety plan with Ricci by Monday. But Ricci said that after penciling out the costs of new requirements and fees, the amount was too high to keep the event in Modesto. He said he would have had to increase the ticket prices above $20, which has not changed since the event debuted in 2000.

“We wanted to maintain our $20 ticket price, and the safety plan that the city of Modesto came up with was just economically unfeasible,” said Ricci, who estimates the changes would would have added about $30,000 to his costs.

Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll said staffing numbers from local law enforcement had consistently dropped over the years, raising concern about the event’s safety. He said city staff had met with Ricci multiple times to try to hash out details of the plan in an effort to not put “additional stress on thin city resources.”

“Music and entertainment are important to the city of Modesto. However, our primary goal is to ensure a safe environment for any event held in Modesto,” Carroll said in a statement about the decision. “Many options were presented to accommodate Mr. Ricci, including alternate locations. These options were not accepted. Mr. Ricci has made a business decision to relocate to Stockton, which will disappoint some in our community, but we wish him the best and hope his event is a success.”

This year the city had required Ricci to pay a $5,000 administrative fee, which had not been collected for the past three years. It also asked for a fivefold increase in the amount of general liability insurance he needed to purchase, from $1 million to $5 million, according to the City Council agenda archives.

But, Ricci said, most critical were the changes to the security plan, which moved Modesto police and fire officials outside the festival barricades while maintaining only slightly lower staffing levels than last year. To accommodate for the shift, the plan also required him to bring in an additional 100 private security guards, raising the number to 300, to patrol inside the grounds, as well as more private emergency medical technicians. Ricci has paid for the overtime fees for the off-duty local police, sheriff’s and fire officials who have worked the event since the festival’s inception. Last year, he said that amounted to about $43,000.

“The reductions in the police and fire forces was not enough to offset the additional costs. I was having to pay for them and replace essentially the entire force on the inside with private security,” Ricci said.

Last year, 46 Modesto police personnel worked primarily inside the event. This year about 35 officers were to work the festival, all outside the event perimeter.

Officials from the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds, which has played host to the annual Stockton Asparagus Festival for the last two years, had pursued Ricci after he began wrangling with the city over this year’s X-Fest permit. The fairgrounds, which sit in south Stockton at Airport Way and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, has been in a rebuilding process the last few years. It was announced earlier this year that the San Joaquin County Fair would return there in June after a two-year hiatus.

San Joaquin County Fair CEO Kelly Olds said the fairgrounds offer fenced grounds and plentiful parking. He said moving to the fairgrounds should also greatly reduce Ricci’s security costs. Ricci and fairgrounds representatives have already met with Stockton police to begin work on their safety plan. Officers are expected to patrol inside the fairgrounds and, like in Modesto, he would pay for their overtime salaries.

“Everyone is excited about the event happening here. It’s a big, wide-open space. We have lots of trees and places for people to sit and relax. I think it’s a good fit,” Olds said. “It’s one more big event for Stockton.”

Ricci estimates about 30 percent of ticket sales for X-Fest have come from Stockton, while 50 to 60 percent have come from Modesto.

X-Fest is expected to maintain its 20-stage format with about 150 bands coming in to play. The event, which once covered 10 city blocks, will now sprawl over about 100 fairground acres.

As for the event’s security plan, Olds said he is confident it will remain a safe event. Over its 16-year history in Modesto, most of the arrests involved vandalism and fights due to public intoxication. In 2014, an attempted rape was reported when a female security guard was accosted by a man as she left the event and headed to her car. And in 2015, there was a fatal shooting at an unsanctioned after-party that occurred off-site.

“It’s something we can handle. Every event we have here has some risk attached,” Olds said. “Working together with Chris and any other promoter, one of the first things we talk about is public safety. We want people to be safe, have a good time and go home entertained.”

Ricci estimates his overall costs to produce the event will drop from last year with the move to the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds. The location is also a state-owned property, which means Ricci will not need to go before the Stockton City Council for permit approval.

A report released from the Stanislaus Business Alliance commissioned last year estimated that X-Fest contributed $1.76 million to the city of Modesto. That amount includes revenue from hotels, sales from surrounding businesses and use of local contractors.

Modesto City Councilman Mani Grewal, who was among the minority on the council who sided against granting the permit in April as part of a 4-3 decision, said dispute about the safety plan was exactly what he was trying to avoid with his vote. He had wanted council oversight on the final safety plan. He said the move is a mixed bag for the region.

“Leaving has advantages and disadvantages. Obviously businesses were concerned about losing revenue because of X-Fest. Well, now that revenue loss will not occur. But it also means an event that still added some vibrancy to Modesto and allowed people to display local talent is gone. It made Modesto, at least for one night, a destination for many people who wouldn’t come to Modesto regularly.”

The dispute between the city and Ricci became public in March after dueling petitions were presented to city officials. One, backed by the management at fine-dining establishment Galletto Ristorante, asked for the event to be moved out of downtown. An online counterpetition, started by Ricci, asked for the event to stay put on city streets.

Ricci said he is open to X-Fest returning to Modesto. He plans to see how the event goes in Stockton and plan from there. Acts for this year’s X-Fest will be announced June 16, and tickets will go on sale the next day.

“I’m very frustrated about how the city treated me. But how the city treated me had nothing to do with the decision. This was 100 percent economical,” he said. “If you can’t pay the bills, at the end of the day you can’t do a festival.”

Marijke Rowland: 209-578-2284, @marijkerowland

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