Six months ago, the Festival at Sandpoint looked poised to collapse.
Weary organizers stared at a $200,000 debt and pondered giving residents a humble apology and closing the festival’s doors.
“At that board meeting months ago, we said this isn’t possible to do - we are so far behind,” said new Executive Director Diane Ragsdale. “It’s miraculous we are here.”
She sat in the bleachers at Memorial Field this week watching crews prepare the festival’s trademark multipeaked tent. Tonight, the Doobie Brothers will be beneath it, playing to a sold-out crowd of 2,500.
“It’s not a bad way to start a season,” Ragsdale smiled.
When she arrived in February, there was $18 in the festival checking account and no money was coming in. She didn’t know if she could even meet payroll.
“It’s only been the last couple of weeks that I thought I will have a job next year,” Ragsdale said. “It’s strange to be talking about next year because we didn’t know if there would be one.”
The festival has rebounded in part because of Ragsdale’s enthusiasm and marketing savvy. Ticket sales are up 45 percent over last year’s. Only five season passes were sold to the dismally attended 1996 summer series. This summer, patrons snapped up 225 of the passes - all the festival had to offer.
“We haven’t even had a concert yet, and we have surpassed last year’s total ticket sales,” said festival President Dave Slaughter. That’s a feat considering the festival had 18 shows last year and is offering only nine this summer. About $10,000 worth of tickets were sold the first day the festival announced its lineup.
The Doobies topped the list, followed by country singer Martina McBride and folk artist John Prine.
The largest audience last year totaled 1,500. The festival could have sold more tickets to the Doobie Brothers but agreed to limit attendance to 2,500 instead of 5,000 at all concerts. The smaller crowd appeases neighbors who endure the traffic and nightly music. It also gives the festival a more intimate feel that concertgoers can’t get at The Gorge in central Washington or the Spokane Arena.
“This small, beautiful outdoor venue is what makes the festival special,” Ragsdale said. “No one can compete with us there.”
Another big change, Slaughter said, is the return of community support for the festival. The years of being in debt, losing executive directors and controversy about the festival are history.
The festival has received more than $150,000 in corporate donations - with Coldwater Creek’s $100,000 leading the way. The mail-order catalogue company is an underwriter for the concert series.
“People are excited about the festival again as opposed to being cynical about it,” Ragsdale agreed. “The staff and volunteers’ spirits were broken. There was a sense this thing that had been really great was going away or wouldn’t be fun again. But it is fun again.”
Mike Ruskey can attest to that. The festival stage manager has worked more than 2,500 shows for all kinds of big-name bands. Last year, after nearly every festival show, he had to tell entertainers they didn’t have all the money to pay them for the night.
“It was very unpleasant,” Ruskey said. “Calling this year a turnaround for the festival is an understatement. It’s an entirely different feel this summer, not just financially but emotionally.”
Ruskey has only had a few glitches to deal with so far. The Doobie Brothers showed up a little early about 7 a.m. Monday. Ruskey bartered a couple of tickets to get a maid to clear them a hotel room pronto. The group’s manager also called a couple times asking Ruskey to keep describing “this Sandpoint thing,” wondering whether the place had trees.
“Sometimes the red flag goes up for these guys when they see they are playing at a football field in a small town in Idaho,” Ruskey said. “When they get here they are stoked, with the grass, mountains and lake.”
The Doobie Brothers have been out golfing, biking, racing go-carts and boating on Lake Pend Oreille. Their show almost actually fell through, though.
The band needed to be in Canada after Sandpoint and had to get across the border before midnight. To get them on the road, festival organizers canceled a warm-up band and pushed the concert up to 7 p.m. instead of 8 p.m.
“It was sort of a panic after we had sold several thousand tickets,” Ragsdale said. Ruskey’s still trying to get special food requests lined-up for John Prine. He wants lumpy mashed potatoes, no green veggies, meatloaf made in a glass dish, two packs of Rolaids and five packs of cigarettes.
“If the band and crew is well-fed and well-rested, all goes great,” Ruskey said.
Blues man John Mayall called and told Ruskey he would see him July 31st. Unfortunately Mayall was booked to play Aug. 8. Mayall’s crew had the date wrong.
To fix it, Mayall canceled a show in Salt Lake City so he could get to Sandpoint.
“It gets more insane than people can imagine at times, but that’s what makes it exciting,” Ragsdale said.
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