When Mammoth Lakes Tourism facilitated Dirk Winter’s purchase of Sam’s Wood Site on Minaret Road, the goal was pretty simple: to preserve a longtime events venue in Mammoth Lakes.
It may have preserved a venue (for now), but it also created a massive headache.
After litigation between MLT and Dirk Winter, owner of the property, Winter retained his land and MLT recouped its investment.
The principal beef was that Winter had used MLT’s money not for site improvements, as intended, but to make the down payment. Public money for private acquisition. Nice.
And the fallout since shows that bygones have not stayed bygones.
Mammoth’s Festival of Beers and Bluesapalooza organizer Sean Turner brought a funding request before the Mammoth Lakes Tourism Board at its May 5 meeting.
Turner asked for a $90,000 reimbursable grant from the Town of Mammoth Lakes, a $200,000 loan from MLT, and assistance in covering facility usage fees for the Wood Site.
In a letter to the MLT Board and Town officials, Turner stated that there had been previous grants that Turner and his partners had always paid back, and that he would pay back the $200,000 from MLT by the end of 2021.
To date, 2,000 tickets have been sold for the event, the majority of which were purchased for the Covid-cancelled 2020 festival.
However, Turner said that there have been 200 tickets sold in the last month alone.
Bluesapalooza 2019 maxed out at about 6,800 attendees.
The issue currently facing the festival is a cash shortage; the entertainment industry is typically payment-up-front.
And due to the pandemic, the proverbial warchest is pretty much empty.
As Turner put it, the event hinges on support from MLT and the Town. Without it, no Blues and Brews until ‘22.
MLT board members Jess Karrell and Rhonda Duggan recused themselves due to contractual involvement with the festival and/or organizers.
“All of us in town would greatly like to see Bluesapalooza happen this year if it’s possible,” Board chair John Morris said of the request.
“It would be a major win for this community to pull off an event like that in this environment.”
Morris stated his belief that the loan would be a good use of the non-profit’s Tourism Reserve funds.
“The biggest issue would be the precedent,” he added, “If we do decide to make this loan, how do we couch it in a way that we don’t have everyone coming to us and using us as a bank?”
That concern was reiterated by numerous board members.
“We can’t become a bank for every event,” said Pat Foster. “How do we keep a lid on this?”
John Mendel, of Devil’s Creek Distillery, suggested changing the wording of the agreement so that MLT would become a partner in the endeavor.
“The word ‘loan’ does trouble me because we’re not a bank,” Mendel added.
Mammoth Mountain Ski Area representative Eric Clark said that the underlying circusmtances of the Covid-19 pandemic could help to justify granting Turner’s request.
“I think we might be able to frame our assistance in that world, saying that it is different because of Covid-19,” Clark said.
The general hesitation surrounding the loan was superceded by a unanimous desire to see Bluesapalooza happen in August.
“As a Board member and a Town Council member, I’m extremely supportive of this event going forward,” said Lynda Salcido.
Michael Ledesma, who runs the Mammoth Margarita Fest, said that he sees the event as being fundamentally different from many others in town.
Ledesma pointed to the ticketed nature of Bluesapalooza
and the large multi-day draw as examples of how important having the festival would be.
“If it comes back to the point where Bluesapalooza cannot move forward without some degree of front money, I would hate for us to have had the opportunity to make Bluesa a go and us having said no,” Morris said.
Turner took time to explain his side of the situation and quell some of the unease.
“I very much understand the gravity of the ask that I am making of MLT and the Town of Mammoth Lakes,” Turner said, clarifying that the $200,000 ask was not inclusive of the facility usage fees.
He added that Sierra Classic Theatre would be paying a usage fee on the Wood Site for the first time ever.
Bluesapalooza is not eligible for event-specific state and national grants because the festival is part of the same corporate entity as Mammoth Brewing Company.
MBC has already received PPP funds and EIDL.
“What I’m committing to is paying this back by the end of the year,” Turner said, “The risk is still mine.”
He estimated that $75,000 would cover the usage fees for both himself and Sierra Classic Theatre (SCT).
“I’m asking MLT to make that contribution outright. I’m asking MLT to put some skin in the game,” he said.
In the conclusion to his pitch, Turner added, “I don’t need to make money but I cannot lose money this year. This is my biggest fear”
In response to a question from Mendel, Turner stated that he lost $180,000 on the event last year.
Despite the lean times, Turner expressed a desire to keep up the quality of the event while adapting it to Covid-related guidelines.
SCT’s Artistic and Managing Director Allison McDonell Page said that Winters had asked for $5,000, non-negotiable, from her.
“He’s asking me to get it from MLT,” she said, “There’s some kind of little vendetta there.”
Page said nearly half of her budget would go to Winters if she had to pay the fee.
Regarding Winters, Salcido said “This deal went upside down and we did get our money back … his next move in the game is to now punish the people that want to use this site, even adamently suggesting they get money from MLT.”
“For those people that are now being forced to continue to work with the Wood Site, we could certainly talk about an ability to seperate that,” she concluded.
The board motioned to grant Turner a $200,000 loan, with half due back on December 31, 2021, and the rest due March 21, 2022, along with a $50,000 reimbursable grant. The grant is due back if the event makes a profit.
“If we make money, I’ll pay you back within 30 days,” Turner told the board.