VERNON — The prospect of a Woodstock 50th anniversary festival being held at Vernon Downs in August is apparently over after the Vernon Planning Board upheld the town code’s department’s denial of the permit for the event organizers said would draw up to 65,000 people to the racing and gambling venue.
The three present members, with one abstaining because of unrelated work with a state agency that could be involved, voted to uphold the code enforcement officers’ permit denial that the organizer’s application lacked detail. The vote came after about 90 minutes of hearing from organizers and the town attorney and after holding a brief executive session to receive legal advice from an attorney the board had retained just for this case, which Chairman Jim Sheridan said was unprecedented.
Co-organizer Greg Peck said they might re-apply today, but he and co-organizer Michael Lang were clearly disappointed afterward.
They released this statement through their publicist:
“Woodstock 50 is disappointed that the Town of Vernon has passed up the opportunity to hold the historic 50th Anniversary Festival by denying our robust and thoughtful proposal. We regret that those in Vernon who supported Woodstock have been deprived of the once-in-a-lifetime chance to be part of the rebirth of a cultural peace movement that changed the world in 1969 and is what the world needs now. We want to thank the artists who stood by us. We are grateful for the support of Vernon Downs and its generous owner Jeffrey Gural.”
In the end, not only was there not enough documentation of security, crowd control, traffic, whether there was adequate grounds for the expected crowd, and sign-off by area law enforcement, but the spectre of how the Woodstock ‘99 event held 10 years ago at the former Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome also played a role. That event is widely remembered for disintegrating when more people than expected came out and overwhelmed crowd control and sanitary and security personnel, with fires set and violence breaking out as the event ended. Woodstock 50 organizers insisted there would be better planning and that this festival would have less angry musical acts and even a children’s area dubbed “Kidstock.”
Board member Tom Gerken, in explaining his vote before the overflowing town hall meeting room, said he saw a lot of potential good for Vernon if the event were held, but he remembered Rome and what a friend told him about it. “That was scary,” he said. “We certainly don’t want that in Vernon.”
Security also concerned board member Burt Richardson. “We need the business. The community could use the income,” he said. “But the safety factor in my opinion … is still a big question mark.”
After the vote, light applause broke out from those who packed the stuffy town court room, though there was also disappointment. Several Vernon Downs employees were in the room offering support to principal organizers Peck and Lang, who was involved in the original legendary August 1969 Woodstock festival held at a Catskills-foothills farm.
Lang and Peck sought Vernon Downs after their original intended venue, Watkins Glen International racetrack in the Finger Lakes, backed out after an investor in the plan left.
Vernon Downs owner Jeff Gural, a real estate developer and philanthropist who owns two other racetracks and a full commercial casino near Binghamton, spoke on their behalf, at times both praising Vernon and expressing bewilderment that the community would turn down a potentially lucrative event that’s gotten national attention. He referred to a “sleepy town” to some catcalls, and insisted this was a one-shot: Turn this down, and we won’t try again with such a major event, he said.
Vernon Downs is the worst investment he’s ever made, he said, its gambling revenue down more than a third as new casinos open upstate and as harness racing loses popularity. No one who comes regularly to the simulcast parlor will be alive in 10 years, he said, to laughter.
He also put in a dig at Gov. Andrew Cuomo, saying “Andy stabbed me in the back, or somebody did” when a full casino was approved west of Syracuse in what was supposed to be the Southern Tier, the location of his Tioga Downs racino and track. He later got the license to open Tioga as a full casino.
Afterward, though, Gural while disappointed, said Vernon Downs is safe as long as he is alive but said who knows what happens when his children are in charge.
As for Tuesday’s decision, Gural said the town should have rejected the application from the start so organizers could have looked elsewhere, but now the town is missing an opportunity.
“To not at least give it a try when you’re in the dire financial straits that this area is in, to me is crazy.”
Board chairman Sheridan made clear from the start that the board’s purview was legally limited to reviewing the work of the codes department as it related to the application as of July 11, and while both sides could state their cases, there would be no public comment.
“This is a town meeting. It’s not a public hearing,” he said.
Organizers were originally denied for being late, then appealed only to have that rejected as well. Speaking for himself as he laid out reasons for upholding the codes ruling, Sheridan said he was bothered by lack of affirmation of support by the public agencies that would be involved.
Another concern was definitive perimeter security, though members of the festival team insisted that would be adequately controlled.
The case for the permit was made by co-organizer Peck and attorney Philip Gitlen of Whiteman Osterman and Hanna of Albany, along with team members responsible for matters such as crowd control and ticketing, emergency medical services, who cited years of experience, including with the Super Bowl, college basketball Final Four and the like. For example, attendees would get color-coded parking lot assignments with tickets, with approximately 40 percent of expected vehicles parked on-site and the rest off-site linked by shuttle buses, they said.
A week earlier, law enforcement officials had spoken out on having the festival so soon, saying they didn’t have nearly enough time to adequately plan for crowd control and security, and late Tuesday afternoon, Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente Jr. issued a strongly worded letter to the planning board urging upholding the permit denial.
“The fact of the matter is the sole reason this concert should not take place at this time falls at the feet of the Woodstock 50 organizers,” Picente said. “The whole notion that these are responsible actors putting forth their best effort and we are somehow holding them back from peace, love and music proves the only thing Michael Lang has retained from his original Woodstock is the hallucinogenic effect.”
Picente also took Gural to task for describing Vernon as depressed in recent media interviews promoting the event.
“Mr. Gural’s choice of words were even more disheartening as local and county officials, as well as residents from this town he claims has no future, have repeatedly went to bat for him when his establishment needed more and more taxpayer funded incentives to stay afloat,” Picente wrote. “If he really believes this economy or community is a place with no future I suggest he look for ways to divest himself from its future, because with or without him Vernon and Oneida County’s future is bright.”
State lawmakers last month renewed a law loosening restrictions on Vernon Down’s use of revenue from state video lottery terminals, which resemble slot and other gaming machines and are the principal non-racing form of gambling there.
After the evening’s result, Picente issued a statement agreeing with the planning board’s decision. “As I’ve said earlier, inadequate planning and a dangerously truncated timeframe made having this event in less than 30 days from today impossible and irresponsible.”
Tuesday’s meeting filled the hall to capacity, and Oneida County sheriff’s deputies limited attendance, leaving some people who’d come out stuck with listening to Facebook live streaming just outside the town hall. Those in attendance, though, were generally quiet during the proceedings, even admonishing one of the attorneys for raising his voice once.
One who made it in was Kurt Krumme of Clinton, who summed up the two views afterward:
“I believe the citizens of this town should have the right to protect their property. But I also think it’s a shame that peace and love and music won’t happen here, because that would also be great for the economy here.”
He also said he’d hoped to perform at the festival.