The Underwater Music Festival may return to Gig Harbor this summer, if financing and permitting issues that have hampered it in the past can be resolved.
Sean Hensley, the owner of Setlist Music Solutions and the festival’s organizer, said money was the reason the UMF didn’t take place last summer. The festival, held on rafts in the water off Cutts Island, faced inquiries about its permits from Pierce County in 2011, its third year.
Hensley said the rapid rise in UMF’s popularity left organizers scrambling to cover the increased costs of holding a safe, free event.
“The growth that’s taken place since it started has just spiked off the charts,” said Hensley, who was brought on as the festival’s chief organizer in 2011. It jumped from 1,500 (attendees) to 10,000 in three years. So, if we want it to be a free event and continue to be safe for the community and family-friendly, the cost keeps going up.”
The festival cost about $10,000 to produce in its first year, Hensley said, when Perry Acker, the Gig Harbor band that Hensley manages, was invited to perform on a boat. The loose, unstructured concert drew guests.
Hensley now estimates $53,000 is required to put on the festival, tentatively scheduled for Aug. 10, provided that Hensley and his crew can raise the money.
Hensley was asked to organize the festival after its original producers didn’t want to get into the permitting process that the growth of the event required, he said. The location also makes permitting complicated – Pierce County has permits for both outdoor music festivals and aquatic events, and the water off Cutts Island is a multi-jurisdictional area affiliated with Kopachuck State Park and the U.S. Coast Guard.
“It’s been a learning curve in Pierce County, because the county has never had an event like this solely based on water,” Hensley said. “All the rules, so to speak, out here are all based on land events. It’s taken a few years for us to learn all the different agencies and everybody involved.”
Hensley said he’s confident he can secure the county, state and maritime permits this year, and that the cost will be relatively low.
“The permits aren’t the problem,” he said.
Al Rose, executive director for justice services at the Pierce County executive’s office, said the county had not received any applications nor issued any permits for this year’s UMF. He said the county sent Hensley a letter last year, detailing the permit requirements and plans for parking, traffic, security and other issues that the festival would require, but never heard back.
Rose said he plans to send a letter again this year.
“They have some time,” Rose said.
Permits are required to be filed 90 days before an aquatic event and 30 days before an outdoor concert, Rose said.
“We’ll try to work with them again this year,” he said. “We want them to have a safe, permitted, successful event.”
Hensley said much of the festival’s cost comes from issues like security and parking. Hiring off-duty law enforcement officers to work the event will cost about $12,000, he said, and providing sanitation facilities will cost another $10,000.
Those costs, and others, were prohibitive last summer, Hensely said. His mission for this year is to reach out to more sponsors, businesses and individuals for fundraising.
“We spread the word as much as possible last year, and we only came up with about $20,000,” Hensley said.
Some of that money went toward honoring the charity obligations that have become part of the festival’s mission, and Hensley used the rest as a head start for fundraising this year.
“But we still have a huge deficit to make up,” he said.
Hensley said he’d like to have an advertising team to help with promotion, but for now, he’s focused on getting the word out that all contributions are welcome to help the festival happen. He said he’s fielded offers to move the festival to become a part of Seattle’s annual Seafair festivities, but he hopes he can raise the money to keep UMF in Gig Harbor.
“I’m a harbor local, and we love this event and what it does for the community,” Hensley said. “But to continue an event like this for free, it really takes a lot of community support.”Reporter Will Livesley-O’Neill can be reached at 253-358-4152 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @gateway_will.