Money-losing music festival wants Monroe to fund it again

MONROE — Organizers of the Monroe MusicFest at Lake Tye Park are again asking the city for money despite the show losing $36,000 in public funds last year.

Keith Brock, a professional guitarist who splits his time between Los Angeles and Monroe, wants the city to put up $65,000 for another September festival.

The City Council last year authorized $40,000 for the event. Former Monroe economic development manager Jeff Sax said he hoped it would attract 2,500 people, or at least enough to cover expenses for the one-day event.

Instead, fewer than 500 tickets were sold. Organizers ended up spending nearly $50,000. They brought in less than $14,000, including $4,000 from business sponsors.

“We obviously fell short of the goal,” Monroe Parks and Recreation Director Mike Farrell said.

“We didn’t go into this as a profit-making venture,” Brock said. “This was put on for the community.”

Mayor Geoffrey Thomas said he supports Monroe bringing in music but he doesn’t want to take $65,000 out of this year’s budget for the festival.

“I just don’t want to put the taxpayers’ dime on the line,” he said. “I see other areas where those funds could be used.”

The proposal to fund another concert is prompting fresh scrutiny of what happened last year.

Brock has music industry connections. He also operates a septic tank pumping business near Monroe.

When Brock suggested the concert in 2013, the city considered offering the production contract to others but decided his proposal was so unique they awarded it to him exclusively, Farrell said.

This week Farrell acknowledged that the city did little vetting of Brock as a potential partner before entrusting him with public money.

Brock created a band, LA All-Stars, to headline the festival. It included Brock and Blues Traveler frontman John Popper. The two musicians are neighbors in the Monroe area.

The eight performers also included Carl Verheyen, of Supertramp, Walfredo Reyes Jr., of Santana and Chicago, and David Rosenthal, best known for playing alongside Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.

Brock’s band was paid $9,000 for the show, according to city records. The two opening acts earned $800 each.

At Brock’s direction, the city was charged nearly $20,000 for sound and lighting for the show.

“You have to understand the caliber of people brought to this event,” Brock said. “We were going to put on a show for Monroe that has never been experienced in the history of the town.”

Brock paid Shan Roberts, of California, almost $3,000 to design posters and create an event website. Roberts also has worked on the websites for Brock’s business, Sultan Pumper.

The city paid for Roberts’ plane ticket and put him up for three days in a hotel. Brock said he was needed on-site to provide “technical service” for his band’s instruments.

Though the 2013 festival fell short financially, Brock hopes stepped up marketing would draw more of a crowd for the proposed event this fall.

He said the 2013 concert lost money because people were unaware of what was planned. Vendors were not confirmed until a few weeks before the show, he said. That left little time for advertising.

The Monroe Chamber of Commerce and the company that operates the Evergreen Speedway, High Road Promotions, helped market the show.

Chamber Director Annique Bennett said the music festival’s budget did not include money for marketing beyond the event’s website. That made it difficult to sell sponsorships.

Organizers secured just $4,000 in sponsorships from Wal-Mart and Evergreen Health.

Bennett said Brock’s vision also was unclear. She believes it would cost the city $100,000 to successfully execute his ideas in a repeat concert.

The 2013 results don’t support that sort of budget, she said. The event sold 467 concert tickets for $20 each, plus admissions tax. The city estimates up to 700 people attended, including those with comp tickets and children, who were admitted free.

Still, Brock thinks he can attract 2,000 people through better marketing.

“We’re urging the city to vet this thing,” Bennett said. “If the city is going to invest, the event should be well thought out with a mission and purpose.”

Despite the challenges, she said, the show was amazing.

“It was over-the-top wonderful,” Bennett said.

Doug Hobbs, who has event experience through his work at High Road Productions and the Speedway, said the production could have been far less expensive without the wow factor.

“It was top of the line. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “But when you’re spending taxpayer dollars you have to be diligent.”

Because there still is hope to make the concert an annual festival, Farrell said, the city is exploring asking other producers to make their pitch before again directing money to Brock.

Farrell wants to see a concert business plan before authorizing fresh expenditures. He said his department last year lacked experience with large-scale shows. For future events, they’ll more carefully scrutinize major expenses and insist on better marketing, he said.

The city was able to score $6,500 in donated service. It also saved money by using resources it already had, including staff hours.

“We all worked really hard on this,” Farrell said. “There were a lot of lessons along the way.”

If the council decides not to fund a 2014 festival, both Farrell and Brock said it is unlikely that the event will continue.

Brock said ticket prices could be raised and a parking fee could be added. Many first-time events lose money but later grow into successful endeavors, he said.

Four free concerts already are scheduled at Lake Tye Park this year. The city allows other outside organizations to use its property for events but offers no financial support.

Mayor Thomas said he would prefer to see the money Brock wants for a concert spent elsewhere, such as on street maintenance, or to pay other city bills. The mayor is trying to rein in costs. As things stand now, the city’s 2014 economic forecast shows a struggle to operate within anticipated revenues.

“The question becomes one of sustainability,” Thomas said. “It’s all a matter of choices.”

City staff and Brock are scheduled to present festival details for the council’s consideration at Tuesday’s meeting.

“This event is so special,” Brock said. “I’ve just worked with some really big artists — literally world-renowned musicians — who have expressed interest in being part of the event.”

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com.

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