Monday, May 7, 2018

Elkfest has been killed — and other outdoor music festivals like Pig Out could be in jeopardy

Posted By on Mon, May 7, 2018 at 2:05 PM

click to enlarge Elkfest has been killed — and other outdoor music festivals like Pig Out could be in jeopardy
Daniel Walters photo
No encore for Elkfest — and there probably never will be.

For months, Elkfest founder Marshall Powell has been locked in conflict with the city of Spokane, trying to ensure the 13-year-music festival had a way to continue. First, he called the City Council to intervene on his behalf after running into difficulty with the city's fire marshal. Then, he appealed a determination that the event would have to pay $4,500 for additional police presence.

He's still waiting on that appeal. But now, he's already thrown up the white flag: Elkfest won't happen this year.

It probably won't happen next year either.

Not only that, but in the process of examining Elkfest, the city became aware of a state rule that could threaten all outdoor neighborhood music festivals going forward.

Powell says the choice to end Elkfest was more about wanting to be a good neighbor than the fights with the city. In the public process fight to save the festival, Powell says, it became clear just how many people weren't supportive of it.

"We had a bunch of complaints," Powell says. "We heard from a lot of people in the neighborhood, including all the businesses who basically are no longer in support."

Powell says that Italia Trattoria, a gourmet Italian restaurant adjacent to the festival, wasn't a fan of the event.

"Rosauers even wrote a letter saying they didn’t like it," Powell says. "Since we were made aware of these complaints we’re taking the high road and being good neighbors."

Ideally, Powell says, he would have had been made aware of the complaints in the 13 previous years so he would have been able to address the issue. In the past, the group has hired security, paid for street cleaners and organized volunteers to pick up litter as to try to improve things for neighbors. 

But even if he did, he would face a bigger legal challenge: Washington state law.

Powell says that as the future of Elkfest was being litigated, one property owner brought up a state regulation passed in 1971: "No music festival shall be operated in a location which is closer than 1,000 yards from any schoolhouse or church, or 500 yards from any house, residence or other human habitation unless waived by occupants."

Elkfest, theoretically, would have had to get a permission from all residents within five football fields from the event to be able to continue.

"As far as I know it’s never been used in any litigation," Powell says about the ordinance. And while the city wasn't going to enforce the rule this year, Powell says, there was no guarantee that someone wouldn't bring a cease and desist against the event.

But the state law means that anyone who wants to create a similar event to Elkfest could face some serious challenges: The law defines "music festival" as any musical event that expects more than 2,000 people and lasts longer five hours.

But interpreted broadly, the law could threaten nearly all music festivals in the city of Spokane.

Yes, it excludes "government-sponsored fairs held on regularly established fairgrounds" and "regularly established permanent place of worship, stadium, athletic field, arena, auditorium, coliseum or other similar permanently established places of assembly" from the provision.

But does a city park count? Is ArtFest in Couer d'Alene Park in Browne's Addition in violation too? Pig Out in the Park in Riverfront Park is less than 500 yards from the Red Lion Hotel, and more high-rise residential buildings are planned to be constructed nearby. Can a single resident prevent Pig Out in the Park from happening?

What does it mean to get permission from residents? Does that mean tenants? Property management companies? Do hotel guests count? The city of Spokane isn't exactly sure — and its legal department is still trying to answer those questions.

"We were only recently made aware of this," says city of Spokane Special Events Coordinator Carly Cortright. "We're still examining it to see how does this apply. "

Interpreted narrowly, the law might not even apply to Elkfest — Elkfest has more than 2,000 people, but only spread across three days. They never have more than 2,000 attendees at once.

Either way, Powell didn't want to fight with the neighborhood.

"We’re a successful business the rest of the year," says Powell. He wants to stay that way.

"I’m obviously super bummed. It sucks. It totally sucks," Powell says. "I think we’re doing the right thing. We had a really good run. We threw some great parties but 'all good things come to an end' or something cheesy like that, I guess."

And Cortright, who has sometimes clashed with a frustrated Powell during the special events process, says she isn't happy to see Elkfest be canceled either. She had hoped to move the event to Coeur d'Alene Park — a proposal which would face its own legal challenges as well.

"That’s disappointing to us," Cortright says. "The community loves Elkfest."

"We're always trying to find that balance," Cortright says. "How do we have the fun events to the community that balance the impacts for the neighborhood that lives there as well."

Here's Elkfest's full statement:
It all began with a simple idea, close down the street and throw a fun party providing fun and free entertainment to our neighborhood as well as the community at large. That simple idea grew into a huge success and became the event many people in Spokane began to use as the book mark for the beginning of Summer fun, Elkfest. The tremendous success of Elkfest over the past 13 years can be measured in many ways. There’s the 7 years of winning best music festival. There’s the many fun filled days and nights of the sounds of live music. There’s the sun shining brightly on myriads of smiling faces, the smells of delicious food wafting through the air, art being created in the streets and dancing everywhere you look. No matter how you measure it Elkfest has always been what it was designed to be; a good time for all.

There’s always been an understanding that Elkfest put a burden on our great neighborhood and for that reason we have strived to do our best to respect our friends and neighbors. We have provided private security to create a safe environment. We have organized teams of employees and volunteers to keep things clean. We have provided fencing where it was appropriate to protect private property. We have hired a street sweeper to clean the streets nearby following the event and even walked the neighborhood picking up trash by hand. Our intention was always to not only create a good time but also to leave things better than they were before the event began.

Unfortunately, the rousing success of Elkfest has also proved to ultimately be it’s undoing. As you may have read in the previous weeks bringing so many smiling faces into our neighborhood has created concerns not only with the local government but also among our neighbors. While the city has been helpful in giving us the ability to meet the requirements they felt were necessary to keep things safe and sane the recent processes have brought to light that not everyone in our area has been enjoying Elkfest through these many years as much as we all have. Our neighbors are after all the backbone of our restaurant’s success and we need to be a good neighbor all 365 days a year, not just the 362 days Elkfest is not happening.

So it is with heavy hearts we find it is time to bring an end to what has been an event which became something so much bigger than we ever imagined. Thank you Spokane for all your support, love, attendance and everything else along the way. Finally, never fear, we are already dreaming up new ways to bring you more good times and keep putting smiles on all of your wonderful faces.

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...