By Zach Hagadone
It’s safe to say 2019 has been the most challenging in the Festival at Sandpoint’s history. A beloved local institution for 37 years, it has drawn iconic acts like Willie Nelson, The Beach Boys, B.B. King, Johnny Cash and Ziggy Marley. According to a 2013 study by the University of Idaho, it contributes millions of dollars to the local economy each year. What’s more, the Festival has helped support generations of local students through music education and scholarship funding, as well as served as a home away from home for the Spokane Symphony orchestra.
Yet, this season, controversy over its weapons policy, legal trouble for its executive director and potential changes to War Memorial Field came together in a perfect storm putting the Festival’s continued existence in question.
In the first week of August, gun activists targeted — figuratively — the event’s no-weapons policy amid heightened security following a spate of mass shootings elsewhere in the country over the summer. The challenge to the Festival’s gun ban subsequently spun into a legal challenge from the Bonner County commissioners, who filed suit in September against the city of Sandpoint. The county alleges Sandpoint violated state law by allowing the Festival to prohibit firearms on the publicly-owned field, which the nonprofit leases from the city for two weeks in August each year.
As that controversy was developing, Sandpoint police arrested Festival Executive Director Dyno Wahl for driving under the influence on the concert series’ closing night.
Wahl was sentenced Oct. 2 in Bonner County court to 120 days jail time with 100 days suspended and one day credited, 10 days of discretionary time, 72 hours of community service, 24 months of probation and 90-days license suspension — but not before the Festival Board of Directors announced she would no longer serve the organization. Around the same time as Wahl’s sentencing, rumors started circulating that the paid staff of the Festival, which worked year-round out of an office in the Pine Street Annex, had resigned en masse.
Yet, throughout the late-summer and early-fall, the board kept mostly mum, not responding to requests for comment on the gun-policy lawsuit or what the loss of its executive director might mean. Then came a news release Oct. 3, in which the board addressed the lawsuit, stating, “The Festival at Sandpoint believes in the 2nd Amendment. However the artists we work with demand a venue free of guns and knives. We work hard with law enforcement to ensure the safety of the audience. If firearms are allowed, the Festival could not exist.”
The release added that the board has been “working closely” with the city to ensure it stays at Memorial Field, but should the Festival be forced to change venues, “there will not be a Festival.”
Asked for further comment, Festival Board Secretary Amy Bistline confirmed to the Sandpoint Reader in an email that the nonprofit’s staff had resigned “because they were worried about the financial position of the Festival and felt they were not receiving enough direction from the board of directors.” She added that “the board values the former staff and understands their worry and discomfort as the board is experiencing similar concerns.”
As it stands, the board is handling day-to-day operations and intends to put on a 2020 season.
Bistline wrote that the board anticipates hiring a new executive director who will then bring on staff. There is no timeline yet for when that position might be opened, and “the job description may look different than it did under the previous ED.”
Beyond that, the venue itself is of great concern to the board.
If the county prevails in its suit against the city and the Festival is forced to allow firearms into its concerts, the event will have to move to a privately-owned location in order to satisfy artists’ weapons-free contract terms.
Another potential challenge to the Festival’s continued operations at Memorial Field is whether the city decides to resurface the site with artificial turf — one of the proposals included in the ongoing parks and recreation master planning effort, which local residents and city officials reviewed in a series of meetings and presentations between Sept. 30 and Oct. 2.
According to the results of a similar public outreach push in the summer, planning consultants GreenPlay reported that among all the potential changes to current city parks facilities and amenities, the least favorable among residents seems to be an outdoor synthetic turf field.
No decisions have been made on the Parks and Recreation Master Plan — and aren’t expected to be made until spring 2020 — but Bistline said the Festival Board is still worried not only about the potential for artificial turf but the timing of its installation should it be included in the final plan.
“Our production manager has estimated additional cost [for setting up] on artificial [turf] could be $40,000-$50,000,” she wrote. “In addition, we would need more time to set up and we don’t yet have a plan or know the exact challenges of the audience seating area on the turf.”
That uncertainty could throw a wrench in efforts to book acts for the 2020 season.
“The board is concerned about booking bands and selling tickets if the city cannot guarantee the field will be available in time to set up for the first time on a new surface,” Bistline added.
While the board stated in its Oct. 3 release that either of these scenarios — the change in weapons policy or the artificial turf — threatened the Festival’s future, Bistline wrote that “the board is interested in exploring options for the Festival on private land.”
Among the potential benefits of a private venue could be year-round use — “that would allow the Festival to book bands when they are in the area and not just in a two-week period,” she added.
The upshot of that could be cost savings for the organization as well as spreading out the positive economic impacts in the spring, summer and fall.
“However, purchasing the land and developing it for the purpose is bound to be extremely expensive and the Festival does not have the funds to consider such a financial undertaking right now,” Bistline wrote. “Once we become more clear about the 2020 season, the board would like to explore the idea of a capital campaign to develop a private site in the future.”
In the meantime, Festival Board members underscored that “we are working feverishly to remedy our financial position and put us on a firm footing going forward as we begin production of the 2020 Festival season, as well as continue to support music and arts education in the region.”
For more information on the Festival at Sandpoint, visit festivalatsandpoint.com. For more on the Sandpoint Parks and Recreation Master Plan, go to opentownhall.com/7920.
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