Wakarusa Fest may not play on
Organizer compares music festival with Manhattan event, claims discrimination
Lawrence may have partied at its last Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival.
Festival promoter Brett Mosiman has accused the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks of bigotry and said he won’t return the festival to Clinton State Park unless the department changes how it treats the event and its largely “hippie” crowd.
“The situation reeks of discrimination,” Mosiman said.
An attorney with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks denied that charge, but Mosiman said it’s clear the department has something against Wakarusa’s crowd or music when the terms of his festival’s contract are compared with the terms of the Country Stampede, a music and camping festival at Tuttle Creek State Park near Manhattan.
Mosiman points to differences in the attendance caps between the two events, a significantly higher law enforcement bill for Wakarusa, and inequities in rent rates between the two events.
“You can say cowboys are cool and hippies drool, but not if you’re behind the state seal of Kansas,” Mosiman said. “It is profiling, it is discrimination, it is like saying the black kids can’t use the pool.”
Amy Thornton, staff attorney for wildlife and parks, said Mosiman has made the claims of discrimination and bigotry in past contract negotiations, and each time the department has provided reasonable explanations for the differences in the two contracts.
“We’ve heard that over and over again,” Thornton said of the bigotry claim. “But, frankly, it is the management of the festival we’re concerned about, not the people there.”
A Stampede subsidy
An analysis of the contracts for the two events found a significant difference in how the festivals are required to pay for law enforcement costs.
The contract for the Wakarusa Festival requires Mosiman’s company to reimburse the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks for park rangers, game wardens and other department personnel who help with law enforcement and security at the event. For this year’s festival, that cost is estimated at $30,000.
But the contract for the Country Stampede does not require the department to be reimbursed. That’s despite the department spending “several thousand” dollars to have 20 to 25 department personnel at the four-day event, said Todd Lovin, park manager for Tuttle Creek State Park.
To Mosiman, the difference is an indication that the state is trying to make it more difficult for the Wakarusa Festival to turn a profit. Mosiman said the festival has lost money the last two years.
“We feel like we are being targeted,” Mosiman said. “They are making illogical and penal decisions to snuff out our event, to chase our event out of town.”
Thornton again denied that the department is trying to put the festival out of business, but conceded she was unsure why the Stampede was not being required to reimburse the department for its personnel expenses.
“It has always been that way, but that is not really a good answer,” Thornton said.
Thornton said the department will look at adding the reimbursement requirement to the Stampede contract when it expires in two years.
The $30,000 payment the Wakarusa Festival made to the department is in addition to about $56,000 the festival paid to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department and the county’s dispatch service for law enforcement at the event. The Stampede paid $26,500 in 2007 for similar services, said Pottawatomie County Sheriff Greg Riat.
In addition, Wakarusa paid the department $65,000 in rent for use of the state park grounds. The Stampede paid $71,000.
Mosiman said the Stampede should be paying significantly more in law enforcement and rent costs because it is a substantially larger event. The state caps Wakarusa’s daily attendance at 13,500 people. Stampede’s attendance is capped at 30,000 people per day.
“It is hard to defend that despite the other event being three to four times larger, our event pays three to four times the law enforcement bill,” Mosiman said.
Thornton – who noted her department does not control how much the sheriff’s departments charge – said the Wakarusa Festival has had its problems in the past. In 2005, a festival attendee died from a drug overdose. In 2006, more than 80 people were arrested at the festival, including 12 for LSD offenses and 25 for marijuana violations.
“The drug use was very rampant,” Thornton said. “We had to make a statement that this is a music festival, not a drug festival.”
But the Stampede has had its low point as well. In 1997 – the festival’s first year – an argument between a husband and wife led to a stabbing death. And Riat said that typically at least one sexual assault is reported each year at the festival.
Mosiman said he’s looking at moving the festival out of state in 2009. Attendance at the festival has dropped from a high of 16,000 in 2006 to about 10,000 this year.
He said the attendance cap, which has declined from 30,000 in the festival’s first year in 2004 to the present 13,500, has made it difficult to book major acts, which affects attendance.
Mosiman said the festival won’t return to Clinton State Park unless Wakarusa is given terms on par with those of the Stampede.
That doesn’t appear likely. Jerry Schecher, park manager at Clinton State Park, said he doesn’t think that Wakarusa can ever have as many attendees as the Stampede is allowed. He said the fact that Clinton State Park has only one entrance in and out of the park is a major difference than the situation at Tuttle Creek.
“We’ve worked really closely with law enforcement and fire and medical folks to determine what is a safe number,” Schecher said. “We have set it at 13,500, and I don’t expect us to ever go over that.”
The acrimony between Mosiman and the department also may not bode well for the prospects of a new contract. Thornton said the department still was willing to work with Mosiman, but also indicated that it wasn’t afraid to lose the event.
“I’m not sure giving ultimatums to us is going to work that well,” said Thornton, when told that Mosiman plans to leave if not given a friendlier contract.
Thornton said the department would be hard-pressed to compromise on many of the points because department leaders think Mosiman has not always lived up to his end of their agreements. She disclosed that the Wakarusa Festival in past years had been late in paying vendors, had violated the contract’s quiet zone provisions, and had missed several deadlines for presenting security and traffic control plans.
Mosiman did not deny the issues, but said he’s confident that they are not what has caused the disagreement. Mosiman instead said he hopes to get city leaders and state legislators riled about the issue. He said the Lawrence economy is missing out on millions of dollars in economic activity because the festival is being stifled.
Thus far, though, local leaders haven’t taken up that cause. When Lawrence city commissioners were asked in December to sign a letter supporting the festival, Lawrence Police Chief Ron Olin issued a memo citing several safety and law enforcement concerns with the festival. The letter ultimately was sent without the city’s signature.
This week, state Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, also declined to get in the middle of the dispute. He previously had mediated a meeting between Wakarusa organizers and the state, but he now says the issues are ones that should be worked out in contract negotiations.
“I don’t think it is an issue for the Legislature,” Sloan said.