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Mayor Rick Owen speaks about the Gnarnia festival during a Town Council meeting Wednesday. Kellen Moore | Watauga Democrat.

Originally published: 2012-09-27 23:23:00
Last modified: 2012-09-27 23:25:10

Town seeks to recoup Gnarnia expenses

Beech Mountain plans to seek compensation from Gnarnia organizers for additional town expenses the three-day festival caused in August, and the town is prepared to take legal action if necessary, Mayor Rick Owen said Wednesday.

While the town’s expenses are still being computed, they may include staff overtime, compensation for non-town law enforcement, use of police radios and other costs. Owen said he expected the total to exceed $25,000.

“We will take action,” Owen said. “We are waiting for the estimated cost to the town before filing any action.”

A special Town Council meeting was held Wednesday to discuss both those financial costs and the intangible ones, including what several residents described as a notable hit to the town’s family-friendly image.

The electronic and dance music festival, held at Beech Mountain Resort Aug. 9-11, drew attention both for its economic impact on the town and for its rampant drug arrests.

Police Chief Jay Hefner and Fire Chief Robert Pudney addressed the council and a full room of residents at the Buckeye Recreation Center about what they saw as a tremendous planning failure by the organizers.

Bowie Van Ling, one of the primary organizers, has not responded to requests for comment via email and Facebook.

Hefner said the first meeting between town staff and the promoters occurred April 17.

“We felt like we were already in a compressed time of 113 days to try to put a plan together,” Hefner said.

During that short time frame, the town struggled tremendously just to get information from the organizers, he said.

The organizers went back and forth about which company they planned to hire for on-site security, Hefner said. When festival day arrived, the town ended up having to provide radios to ensure communication.

The police department requested two officers from Avery County, Watauga County and Boone for the festival, but the sheriffs drastically increased their support when they saw the situation that Thursday, Hefner said.

“If that hadn’t have happened, we would have exceeded our maximum capability,” he said. “We couldn’t have kept up.”

Hefner said the result was 362 calls over three days, a roughly 50 percent increase, and seizures of drugs that he had never before dealt with in Beech Mountain.

Hefner recalled one noise call in particular the day the festival began.

“We were met at the door by a naked lady,” he said. “These drugs made them want to get naked. I don’t know why.”

Pudney echoed several of Hefner’s remarks, adding that the medical services coordinated by the festival did not meet expectations.

He said he met with the company contracted for the festival on the Thursday it started and found that they had only basic supplies such as bandages and saline — no backboards, no blood pressure cuffs, no defibrillators.

Providing true medical assistance fell to the town, he said, and by 3 a.m. the final day, all ambulances from Avery County were in use. If any resident had experienced a heart attack, fall or other emergency, they would have been without an ambulance close by, he said.

“We put the community at risk because we exceeded the capabilities of our local resources,” Pudney said.

Pudney said cooperation from agencies on and off the mountain — as well as from the Beech Mountain Resort — was the only reason the festival succeeded.

“There was literally no planning that went into that event from the promoters’ perspective,” he said.

ALE Special Agent David Ashley was scheduled to speak about his organization’s role in the festival but was called to another assignment and could not attend. The town plans to invite him back at another time.

Despite the concerns, Owen said that the August occupancy tax collections were the highest ever recorded for that month. He said about $20,000 in tax was collected, about $9,000 more than August 2011.

But he said he believed the weekend was not as strong of an economic driver as a typical ski weekend and that the additional revenues would not cover the added costs to the town.

According to section 91.48 of the town ordinances, the town can require an event host to pay the town “a fee sufficient to reimburse the town for the costs of any extraordinary services or equipment provided.”

The ordinance states that it applies to street fairs that “require the temporary closing or obstruction of all or a portion of any street or other public right-of-way,” and Owen said it is this ordinance on which the town bases its claim for reimbursement.

A few residents who spoke at the meeting questioned whether the town and Beech Mountain Resort could develop a more collaborative plan for ensuring that promoters plan effectively for future events, possibly to include a performance bond.

Ryan Costin, general manager of Beech Mountain Resort, said he did not want to pursue ventures like Gnarnia in the future. He stressed that he and the resort want only the best for the community he calls home.

“Obviously, we don’t go into ventures wanting to do anything that harms our business or this town,” Costin said.