CVB, Cash festival organizer at odds

September 15, 2009 9:25:00 AM

Tim Pratt -

 

A majority of the Johnny Cash Flower Pickin'' Festival next month won''t take place at its usual location in downtown Starkville, but at Rick''s Cafe American on Highway 182. 

 

The change in location is the result of a down economy and a disagreement between festival organizer Robbie Ward and the Starkville Convention and Visitors Bureau. 

 

"The economy has caused us to downscale some, but we''re doing our best to cut costs and still have a quality event," Ward said. 

 

The cost of putting on the event in the past has run around $75,000, Ward said. This year he''s estimating it will be closer to $30,000. 

 

Troubles started when the CVB considered forming a committee or advisory board to run the festival. Ward would have been a member of the board, he said, but he felt the move was an attempt to "hijack" the festival he created in 2007. 

 

The event will still feature vendors and live music, though this year they will be located inside and outside of Rick''s, Ward said.  

 

A clash between Ward and the Starkville CVB contributed to the change of venue. 

 

The CVB threatened to withhold its annual $5,000 contribution to the event unless Ward agreed to the change in leadership, Ward said. The CVB, however, eventually reconsidered its stance and attempted to work with Ward, Greater Starkville Development Partnership President and CEO Jon Maynard said. The CVB operates under the Partnership. 

 

The second conflict between the CVB and Ward came when Ward asked for help with food vendors, staffing and other services for the event. At least two of Ward''s usual festival organizers were unable to help this year, so Ward asked the CVB for assistance in coordinating volunteers and other manpower. 

 

But Maynard and the CVB wanted to see contracts and confirmations from all musical acts; a contract for stage, sound and equipment; a contract or commitment from stage technicians; a printed publicity schedule; and event venue confirmations for each day of the festival. Only then would the CVB "mobilize," Maynard said. 

 

It was at that point when Ward decided he was done trying to work with the CVB and was moving the event from Main Street to Rick''s.  

 

"Rosanne Cash performed at the festival last year on her word," Ward said of Johnny Cash''s daughter, who was the headline act at the 2008 event on Main Street. "The CVB wants me to provide contracts and commitments and e-mails to verify everything I''m doing. They''re treating me like I''ve never done this before. They''re treating me like I haven''t put on a successful festival the past two years." 

 

Maynard said the CVB wanted to check on all the musical acts and details of the event because he heard several times the festival wasn''t going to take place this year.  

 

"We''ve gotten a wide variety of answers," Maynard said. "The festival is on; the festival isn''t on. We''re going to have it downtown; we''re going to have it at Rick''s. This headliner; that headliner. We''ve never gotten concrete answers on anything. We''ve never seen anything tangible. We''ve never seen any contracts. We''ve never seen anything that shows us that he is fully committed to this other than verbally talking about it. 

 

"We can''t really do anything until we understand fully where it''s going to be; what''s going to be happening; who''s going to be doing everything; what sort of publicity we''ve got going on," Maynard added. "I mean, we need to understand and see proof that those things are going on." 

 

Despite the conflict between Ward and the CVB, Maynard said the organization already has "called people and started doing things" to prepare for the event, though he''s still waiting on more details before the CVB truly mobilizes. 

 

"We want to help," Maynard said. "We just need to understand where everything is going and what everything is doing, because we have just heard too much ''this'' and ''that.''" 

 

For Ward, who has spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours organizing the event each of the past three years, the CVB''s inaction is frustrating. 

 

"You would think an organization whose sole purpose is to promote tourism would work with me on an event that brings thousands of people into the city," Ward said.  

 

"Instead of getting a key to the city, I have to go to the doctor''s Tuesday because I''m having anxiety issues," he added. 

 

Ward estimated 4,000-5,000 people have attended the Flower Pickin'' Festival each of the past two years. He already has received e-mails from people as far away as Dubai this year who plan to attend.  

 

Neither Maynard nor any representatives of the Greater Starkville Development Partnership attended the Starkville Rotary Club meeting Monday, where Ward announced the change in venue.   

 

The headlining acts at this year''s festival are Carlene Carter and Justin Townes Earle. Carter is the daughter of June Carter, who went on to marry Johnny Cash. Earle is the son of singer/songwriter Steve Earle. 

 

The festival begins Friday, Oct. 16, and ends Sunday, Oct. 18. For more information, visit www.pardonjohnnycash.com.