Dewey Beach businessman, attorney and promoter Alex Pires says he is staging a country music festival in August 2015 and he wants the event in Sussex County. Known for promoting rock music concerts for years at his Dewey Beach clubs, Pires has recently taken a keen interest in country music.
He told a standing-room-only crowd during the July 10 county planning and zoning commission meeting that he has a lease for 500 acres of farmland near Harbeson; but if that fails, he also has an agreement to use facilities at the Delaware State Fairgrounds in Harrington.
Pires' Cool Spring LLC/Highway One has filed an application for a conditional use of agricultural-residential, AR-1, land for an outdoor entertainment venue with temporary camping on 500 acres of a 1,000-acre farm owner by the Baker family near Harbeson. About half of the parcel is wooded.
Pires said he is willing to discuss his idea. “I will do a good job, and I respect how people feel,” he said. “I'm determined to do this, and I'd like to have it here. This is allowed under law with conditions, and I would agree to any reasonable conditions.”
Pires said under county code, he could apply for an event permit and not go through the public hearing process, but county officials requested that he apply for a conditional use. “Like Punkin Chunkin, I could have filled out a form and done this over the counter,” he said. “But it's in the best interest of everyone to discuss it and see what is best for Sussex County.”
More than 200 people spilled from the meeting room out into the hallways. Many supporters of the application came on buses and left about midway through the hearing. During an unofficial count, more than 115 people raised their hands in support and about 75 people were opposed.
Many of the opponents who spoke during the three-hour hearing were concerned about excessive traffic on narrow, rural roads.
Delaware Department of Transportation's Marc Cote said a traffic impact study is not required because the application is for a temporary event and not for a subdivision or commercial project that generates traffic every day of the year. He said if approved, DelDOT would work out a traffic control plan with the applicant and police similar to plans for the state fair, Firefly, NASCAR events and Punkin Chunkin.
Under the proposal, there would be no more than five events on the parcel during the year. Two of the events would be three-day music festivals and the other three would be one-day charity events without music, Pires said. He said the county music festival would attract some of the top performers in the business.
Now that Punkin Chunkin has moved to Dover, if approved, the venue would provide a location for the largest event in Sussex County.
Questions about attendance
Commissioner Mike Johnson asked Pires if one of the conditions placed on the application could be an attendance limit, possibly at 25,000 people. “This will take place on one of the largest farms in Delaware, so placing 4,000 campers on 500 acres is not that much,” he responded. “At the most, we are looking in the 20,000 to 23,000 range, but I do not want a limit.”
Pires said there are 31 country music festivals in the country. The most successful festivals have an attendance of about 20,000 people. “They are family, camping events attracting people of all ages,” he said, adding rarely does an event exceed that number.
He said attendance at the first event would likely be 12,000 to 15,000 people – which would be about 3,000 RVs, campers and tents – but the event could grow to and beyond 20,000 people.
Pires said ticket sales for a three-day event would range from $150 to $250 with another fee charged for camping. “This is a vacation business,” he said.
Pires' Highway One, in business in Dewey Beach since 1989, owns eight businesses including North Beach, Ivy, Jimmy's Grille and Rusty Rudder. In 2005, he put together a group of investors and formed Community Bank Delaware; he has served as chairman of the board since its inception.
Pires said his staff can handle large events. He pointed out that Jimmy's Grille is the largest caterer in the state doing as many as 100 weddings and 700 events each year. “We know how to handle big crowds – we serve 60,000 meals at the Rusty Rudder each summer,” he said.
Ross: Not enough information
Some commissioners were critical of Pires' presentation and application filing. “Don't sell us a business plan; our's is a land-use decision,” Commissioner Marty Ross said, adding a preliminary site plan should be part of the record. “We need to know how it would conform to the comprehensive land-use plan,” he said. “We need a site plan before us. I can understand why the public is using the word ambiguity because it is ambiguous.”
“Everybody gets another swing and maybe a more complete swing is necessary,” Ross said referring to Pires' presentation during the Tuesday, July 22 county council public hearing. Council hearings start at 1:30 p.m.
Opponents listed other concerns including disruption of the area's rural nature. “This tranquil lifestyle will be violated with the proposed land use,” said Trudy Belotti, who lives on Lawson Road near the proposed site. “The five yearly events with the accompanying 18,000 daily vehicles will dramatically impact our quality of life. The area cannot handle the impact of that number.”
Other opponents discussed the effect the events would have on the surrounding environment.
Pires: Hands-on approach
Pires said the first event would have a budget of about $5 million to $6 million. He estimated the economic impact to the area to be from $11 million to $12 million with many local businesses benefiting from the event.
Pires said he would take a hands-on approach running events. “The responsible party is Highway One, and that's me,” he said.
Setting up for the two music festivals would take about two weeks before the events, he said. Two music festivals were listed in the proposed application, but it was not clear if both events would be devoted to country music.
No permanent structures would be built on the grounds. “For about 11 months of the year, this site will be in its natural state,” Pires said.
Pires said he would follow the same format as other country music festivals and promote camping for all three days of the event. He said day tickets would be limited to no more than 20 percent of total ticket sales with limited on-site parking and no more than 2,000 parking places to control traffic coming and going from the site, he said.
Pires said many festivals have shuttle services with hotel packages that typically sell out.
“We want to limit the traffic impact on the county,” he said.
Pires said every facet of the event would be regulated by state and county officials including traffic, fire and emergency services, fire marshal and police. The state fire marshal's office would be responsible for approving camping sites in grids and DelDOT officials would set up a traffic plan, Pires said.
“Country music is an American institution with really big stars,” Pires said, adding that he has been attending festivals over the past two years to garner information about them.