Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival leaving Lawrence for Arkansas

Camping and music event attracted thousands every year to Clinton Lake

The Wakarusa will flow a little farther south next year.

Organizers with the Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival announced Wednesday that the event is leaving its Lawrence home at Clinton State Park for a new site in northwest Arkansas.

Lead promoter Brett Mosiman said the event will retain its name, but move to Mulberry Mountain — a 650-acre campground and event center — just outside Ozark, Ark. The event will be held June 4-7.

“It is going to be a remarkable enhancement of our brand of music and Mother Nature,” Mosiman said. “You can’t get much better than being on top of this mountain.”

The move marks the end of a sometimes noisy debate between Mosiman’s Lawrence-based promotion company and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. Mosiman and state leaders sparred over attendance caps and other financial matters related to the Clinton State Park site. Mosiman ultimately alleged the state was treating his event differently from a country music event held at Tuttle Creek State Park near Manhattan because state leaders didn’t like his “largely hippie crowd.” State leaders denied those allegations.

Some good, some bad

Some local leaders on Wednesday said Lawrence ended up being the ultimate loser in the debate.

“It is a loss for the community,” Judy Billings, director of the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau, said. “I know there have been a lot of questions about the event, but I think it is a definite loss.

“It was an event that spoke to a younger crowd that we don’t often have a chance to reach. It brought young people from around the country who wouldn’t often have a reason to visit Kansas, and they found Kansas pretty nice, to their surprise.”

The festival had been held for five years — since its inception — at Clinton State Park. Estimates on how much the event contributed to the local economy are imprecise, but Mosiman said the event did $3 million in sales in its best year. The event attracted between 10,000 and 16,000 people each year, with about 80 percent coming from outside the area, Mosiman said.

Billings said hotels, gasoline stations and other service businesses reported stronger sales during the time of the festival. George Waters, owner of Glass House Liquor at 2301 Wakarusa, said sales could increase by about $10,000 over the three-day period of the festival.

“I’m definitely sad to see it go,” Waters said.

But leaders with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks don’t share Waters’ sorrow. Amy Thornton, an attorney for Wildlife and Parks, said the department is still in dispute with Mosiman over approximately $25,000 in unpaid bills from the last festival.

“I think it is probably best for both parties,” Thornton said of the move.

The festival also had been criticized as a site for significant illegal drug activity. 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.

Moving forward

Billings said she not sure whether the community should expect to see anything replace the Wakarusa Festival. But she hopes the community will be open to music festivals as a way to generate tourism for the area.

“I think there was a perception by the general public in this town that the festival was not a good thing to have because of the perceived type of people who came to this,” Billings said. “But I know some of the people who attended. I think there were some perceptions that were unfortunate and hard to overcome.”

Mosiman, for his part, said he didn’t want to dwell too much on the past.

“I think there are a lot of things Kansas needs to address to be pro-business and pro-jobs,” he said. “We’re looking at it like every closed door is a new opportunity. Fate was shining upon us when we came across this site.”

In addition to offering on-site camping and room for the concerts, the Mulberry Mountain location also has horse trails, swimming, and is adjacent to a river suited for kayaking.

The site is about five hours from Lawrence. Organizers haven’t yet announced any bands that will play at the event. Those announcements are expected in early January.