The Underwater Music Festival’s rapid growth and an expensive county permitting process have put the event on pause until next year.
The festival, which was scheduled for Saturday off Cutts Island, officially was canceled July 18. The announcement was made on the organization’s Facebook page along with a statement it hopes to “re-launch of this great community event in 2013.”
Current sponsor Setlist Music will partner with a yet-to-be-announced title sponsor when the festival returns. In the meantime, the organization’s message discouraged independent boat parties in the area this weekend.
The multiband charity event has become increasingly popular since it started four years ago, but the increased interest led to increased complications.
When the festival made the transition from an informal boat party to an official event in 2010, it drew 1,500 people and had a $2,500 budget. This year, Setlist owner and festival organizer Sean Hensley expected somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 people with a total price tag of $26,500.
“It’s grown so fast that I’ve literally had to pull back on the reins,” Hensley said.
A large part of the escalating costs was associated with the permitting process. In order to be legal, the event is required to have three permits: one from the U.S. Coast Guard, which it had, plus an Outdoor Public Music Festival permit and an Aquatic Event permit from Pierce County.
The event did have a Coast Guard permit in 2011, but there was a stir last year when it was discovered the festival never applied for either of the county permits.
In order to avoid a similar situation this year, the Pierce County Executive’s Office began to contact Hensley in March. It sent him copies of the county code and a checklist of all the requirements and deadlines, according Al Rose, the county’s executive director of Justice Services.
Rose also offered to be Hensley’s main contact for any questions.
“I don’t know what else we could have done,” Rose said. “We believe the county has bent over backwards to assist him.”
Rose said he continued to contact Hensley throughout the year but didn’t get a response.
Hensley said none of the pieces of communication were very clear about specific requirements. In fact, the permits come at a cost.
The Outdoor Public Music Festival permit requires organizers to post a $3,000 bond and provide specific ratios of police officers for crowd control at their own expense. Both permits require that the event be insured, and the Aquatic Event permit allows the insurance coverage to be set at the executive office’s discretion.
With those factors in mind, the more people who attend an event, the more expensive it becomes.
When Hensley filed the Aquatic Event permit well before its April deadline, he estimated attendance at 1,500 plus, Rose said. However, Setlist Music’s official expectation was close to 10,000 people.
Hensley said it’s impossible to accurately estimate attendance before an event, and the high numbers were used for promotional purposes to drum up sponsorship.
“Most of the amounts Al Rose now speaks of have shifted due to the speculation of how many people might be there,” Hensley said.
For safety purposes, the county worked on the assumption that the maximum number of people would attend. It sent Hensley a letter on May 11, requiring him to obtain $5.5 million in insurance coverage before a permit could be issued.
“I was forced then to go back to sponsors in the community and get additional funding,” Hensley said.
Hensley said he was prepared to pay the full amount — the bond, the insurance premiums, the cost of crowd control and more — when he went to apply for the Outdoor Public Music Festival permit on its June 28 deadline. However, that permit stipulates organizers get prior approval from six different county agencies, including the county fire marshal and health department, a minimum of 10 days before an application is submitted.
Hensley left without turning in an application. He called later that day to ask for an extension, which Rose did not grant.
“We didn’t want to do this, but we have to follow the law,” Rose said, noting that the letters the county sent made all the requirements explicit, and that he repeatedly offered to answer any questions Hensley had about the process.
Hensley said it feels like the county is just as confused about the process as he is. He said he heard different things from different agencies in both 2011 and 2012, and he thinks that may be in part because the Underwater Music Festival is so young and unique.
“It’s definitely a growing and a learning curve,” he said, noting that the event is possibly the only music festival of its size to happen literally on the water in the area.
Hensley is excited for next year’s festival. He said he’s partnered with a company he declined to name that has more water-management experience.
Hensley and Setlist Music will stay involved in the planning and execution, but they will have the help they need to make the event what it should be, he said.
“We want everybody out there to be safe,” he said. “That’s our No. 1 goal,” he said.Lifestyles coordinator and reporter Marisa Petrich can be reached at 253-853-9240 or by email at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @gateway_marisa.