As a resident of the South End, I harbor mixed feelings every year when July comes around, and the Gathering of the Vibes rolls down my street and into Seaside Park.
There are plenty of negatives. The park is fenced off more than a week in advance of the festival. When the campers arrive on Thursday morning, there is often a VW bus traffic jam in the South End. During the four days of the festival, residents fight with daytrippers for on-street parking.
Nevertheless, I’m saddened to think that the Gathering of the Vibes — which completed the final festival of its five-year contract in Bridgeport — might be leaving town for good because there are positives. I was able listen to the music of Deep Banana Blackout and Primus from my backyard this weekend, and I got the special three-day pass for Bridgeport residents, a deeply discounted wristband that is like a thank-you for letting a lot of hippies party in our neighborhood. Best of all was an unintended consequence of having thousands of people camped down the street — there were lots of people around.
So the Vibes were good for me and for neighbors who were excited about the music and the festival.
But is the Vibes good for Bridgeport as a whole? I’m not so sure. My neighborhood was very safe this weekend, and crawling with police working the festival, but a few neighborhoods away, three people were shot and killed in as many days, one of them a 15-year-old girl who was just sitting on a porch. Was she killed because all the police were in our neck of the woods? I imagine the city would say no, that the officers at Seaside were hired for extra duty by the company that mounts the festival, Terrapin Presents, but it bears consideration. I doubt that the squad cars patrolling the South End outside the park were paid for by the Vibes.
The festival is good for Bridgeport in some ways.
The Gathering of the Vibes signed a five-year contract with the city of Bridgeport in 2007. Under the contract, the festival pays a $40,000 park fee, provides two $50,000 bonds, cleans up the park and makes other contributions, usually park-related. The festival also contracts with Bridgeport and Connecticut businesses to do things such as rent out portable toilets and provide food for staff.
But is the Vibes — a fenced-in, self-contained music festival and campground — good for local business?
Based on a quick, unscientific survey of businesses in the area, the answer would seem to be no.
Tony Malinowski, whose business, Pop’s Grocery Store, is on Main Street, nearest the Vibes’ East Campground, is fairly entrepreneurial when it comes to the Vibes. He rents a van, calls it Pop’s Free Grocery Shuttle, passes out fliers, and arranges to bring campers out of the Vibes to his store to do some shopping. Last year, he said, he turned a 20 percent profit. This year, however, he broke even.
Rosa Melgir of Leo’s Pizza Spanish Restaurant said she got maybe one or two of the festival-goers.
John C. Keklik, owner of Captain’s Food Mart on Main Street, says that there’s always a slight uptick in business, but that festival traffic is directed to Park Avenue, and he thought the businesses there would be pulling in more Vibes-related trade.
Except that didn’t appear to be the case.
Miguel Rivera, manager of the Park Avenue Supermarket, was frank about business during the 2012 Vibes. “This year was garbage,” he said.
But business seems to be bad all around: Ken Hays, founder of Gathering of the Vibes, says he’s lost money multiple times during the Vibes’ time at Seaside Park. This year might have been a bad year for Hays – although he didn’t have firm numbers when I spoke to him Monday. He said that fewer people attended this year’s Vibes than did last year.
The cost of putting on the show is $4 million, and though Hays said he’d like to return to Bridgeport in the future, he will only do so if he can figure out how to turn a profit.
How to do that? I’ve heard rumors that the Vibes may do away with camping and just set up shop as a concert. That might be the way to go. Grateful Dead aficionados would have to leave the park at night, and that may drive them up Park Avenue and into the hotel and the restaurants downtown.
But that’s just a rumor. We’ll have to wait to see what Hays, the Park Commission and the City Council hash out. The city may want to charge him more than the current $40,000 park fee and Hays might not be down with that. “I’ve gotta be able to cover my costs,” said Hays.
So does Bridgeport.