After striking a sour note with plans to move some concerts to Kootenai County, Festival at Sandpoint organizers have changed their tune and their minds.
The festival board flip-flopped Sunday, voting unanimously to keep the entire concert series in Bonner County.
“This is a response to the outpouring of community opinion,” said festival vice president Dave Slaughter. “The board still has a lot of things to work out, but we are unified in one respect. We want the festival to succeed and want it to succeed in Sandpoint.”
The board reversed its decision after community boosters erupted in anger over the proposed split with Kootenai County.
Some were calling for festival executive director Connie Berghan to be fired. Others threatened to pull financial support or start a new festival.
The amount of angst caught festival organizers off guard.
“After the initial shock over the controversy, it was a pleasant surprise to see the level of support and love for the festival,” said board member A.C. Woolnough. “With that energy we are prepared to move forward.”
The festival’s mistake, Slaughter said, was not checking with the community before making a major decision about the festival’s future.
“We weren’t hearing and weren’t asking people before, but we are listening now.”
Kootenai County officials, eager to cash in on a festival move, were disappointed by the news.
“We certainly would have benefited, but there was never anything etched in stone,” said Cyndie Hammond of the Post Falls Arts Commission. “We are mildly disappointed but also glad such consternation over the festival in Sandpoint is being resolved.”
Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jonathan Coe said the board’s vote was an economic and cultural victory. The chamber formed a committee to fight the effort to split the festival, along with the business and tourism it generates.
“This is no doubt a big step, but it won’t make the problems go away,” Coe said. “Now the community needs to rally behind the festival and help solve the challenges they face.”
Initially organizers argued a move would expand the festival’s audience base, increase revenue and stop a competing festival from cropping up in Post Falls or Coeur d’Alene.
The split concert series would have also appeased neighbors near Memorial Field, the festival’s traditional concert site. Neighbors have griped about noise, traffic and too many concerts. The complaints eventually led the Sandpoint City Council to oust the festival from the field after 1997.
Pulitzer Prize-winning conductor Gunther Schuller said he’s not sure the board’s latest decision resolves any of those problems.
“It’s like putting chewing gum on a wound that needs a bandage,” Schuller said from his Boston home. “Unless someone can show us a nice place we can occupy and afford to go, this doesn’t solve much.”
The board’s reversal may have won over some people, but there will be naysayers and those who will now want the board to fire the festival director and other staffers, Schuller said.
Al Czap, a former board member who once donated $25,000 to the festival, is one of the latter. He agrees with the board’s latest move but wants them to clean house.
“This doesn’t answer questions about day to day management of the festival,” he said. “We still have a sinking ship, but now it’s in Lake Pend Oreille instead of Lake Coeur d’Alene. The current management is a major impediment.”
Czap wants festival board meetings open to the public, board members voted in by the general membership, not by other board members, and a return to the festival’s classical music roots.
“We do not need to try and compete with the Gorge or Spokane,” he said. “We are a nice little festival looking for acts that complement the community. We are not a prominent player in the concert circuit.”
Slaughter said the festival board will listen to all the community’s concerns. An open meeting is slated for Nov. 27 at 7 p.m. in Sandpoint High School. The meeting will focus on finding a concert site in Bonner County, financing and programming.
“We still have problems to overcome and are inviting people to come and offer opinions,” he said. “We have a lot to do.”