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Pemberton Festival deemed success, while businesses see lack of activity

Expanded site had between 15,000 and 23,000 festival goers per day
Picture Perfect Pemberton Festival attendees pose for the camera. The festival saw between 15,000 and 23,000 people per day. Photo BY CAthryn Atkinson

Six years after operational issues hampered the inaugural event, the new producers of the Pemberton Music Festival, HUKA Entertainment, are being lauded for its successful return despite criticism from local businesses over a lack of spending in the community by festival goers.

The expanded festival site near the foot of Mt. Currie saw between 15,000 and 23,000 people per day, eliminating much of the congestion experienced during the 2008 rendition of the event. The organizers' operational plan included a cap of 25,000 campers and 5,000 shuttle users.

The festival included nearly 100 performances by such acts as Nine Inch Nails, Outkast and Deadmau5, and HUKA is already firming up talent for next year's event.

"As the festival concludes, it's our hope that the local community, along with thousands of music fans from all over the world and our incredibly talented artist lineup, believe we achieved our goal of establishing a world-class festival in one of Earth's most stunning locations," read a statement from HUKA Entertainment released on the festival's closing day.

An official HUKA spokesperson was not available for comment.

While the original festival put on by Live Nation was plagued by security, traffic and waste management issues, few concerns were reported during the course of the event's five days, July 16 to 20.

"I thought the production and organization of the event itself was great," said acting Pemberton mayor James Linklater.

But while operations ran smoothly on the festival grounds, business owners in the community saw a significant dearth of activity.

"You could shoot a gun through town on Friday, during what would be (Pemberton's) normal rush hour, and you wouldn't have hit anybody," said Pemberton Valley Lodge GM David MacKenzie.

Grimm's Gourmet & Deli owner and festival vendor, Mark Mendonca, said the atmosphere at the event itself was great. But, he added, while recognizing the many employment opportunities for Pembertonians the event brought, he had concerns about lack of economic opportunity for local businesses.

"There was economic spin-off in the lead-up (to the festival), but there was no real economic spin-off during," he noted, saying his sales were "somewhat disappointing," both at his festival stall and at his Frontier Street shop.

"Monday was pretty busy but nowhere near the last festival's numbers," he explained, adding that there was also some miscommunication from organizers about what kind of food vendors would be permitted on the site.

Mendonca was not alone in his concerns. Pique spoke to several businesses but most did not want to go on the record over concerns about how it would impact opportunities for them at future festivals.

Business at the Pemberton Valley Supermarket was "slower than normal," said manager Kirsten McLeod, although she said sales increased 10 per cent in the days leading up to the event compared to the same period last year.

"We didn't have as much sales as we would normally have on a summer weekend," McLeod said. "It was very similar (to the 2008 festival): we were busy beforehand but not during the event."

Husky Gas station manager Manpreet Singh also reported relatively low numbers during the festival, saying gas sales were stagnant until Monday, July 21 when many festival goers returned home. Grocery sales, however, paced at nearly double the store's average summer weekend, Singh estimated.

At a council meeting Tuesday, July 22, Village of Pemberton officials discussed the possibility of allowing shuttle service to extend to visitors as well as locals in order to help bring people into the community, although this would presumably take away business from vendors on the festival grounds. Pemberton council said it's an issue they intend to raise with HUKA during a mandated debrief, expected by September.

As well, $3 from every ticket sold is required to go to a community fund, with a decision forthcoming on how the money will be divided between festival partners, the Village of Pemberton, the Lil'wat First Nation and the SLRD.

While Tourism Whistler isn't expected to have finalized figures for the festival's weekend until August, spokesperson Patricia Westerholm said hotel room night bookings in the resort, "were pacing ahead of the same dates for last year."

Traffic plan a success

Heading into the festival, one of the major questions was how HUKA would minimize delays along Highway 99 leading into the event grounds after there were only two entrances installed in 2008, snarling traffic and forcing pedestrians to cross the busy two-lane road to access the site.

This time around an additional four entrances and two kilometres of road were installed, along with a pedestrian overpass crossing the highway, resulting in no reported major delays.

"There were no traffic issues from what I saw," Linklater said at Tuesday's council meeting. "Certainly, there was volume (on Monday) heading south, but I've seen more traffic on a busy ski weekend."

The shuttle service to and from Pemberton and Whistler also ran smoothly, with wait times no longer than 20 minutes, according to the festival's community relations consultant, Maureen Douglas, who anticipated a similar traffic plan would be in place next year.

"The traffic plan was one of the big successes," she said. "The plan worked exactly as we hoped it would in terms of vehicles."

Douglas said that organizers plan to tweak the load-in process as campers had to lug their gear a long way to the designated campsites. Pemberton Councillor Ted Craddock said he'd like to have more discussions with HUKA representatives about adding a drop-off point for campers in 2015.

Lil'wat looking forward to continued festival involvement

While many in the Lower Mainland eagerly anticipated the return of the Pemberton Music Festival, the Lil'wat community understandably had some apprehension after tens of thousands of attendees descended upon the First Nation's sacred territories in 2008 and left the site in disrepair.

But, with the site doubling in size thanks to the Lil'wat's leasing of 40 additional hectares of reserve lands, organizers injecting an estimated $18 million in infrastructure to the region and hands-on involvement with HUKA over the past year, Chief Lucinda Phillips is "looking forward to an ongoing partnership and involvement with the Pemberton Festival," according to a release.

"HUKA did a really good job at managing many of the challenging issues from the last event and our senior management team, community members and council were consulted regularly through the buildup to the event," she said.

Between ticket holders, performers, vendors, staff and volunteers, close to 250 Lil'wat members were onsite for the festival, said senior administrator Curt Walker.

Garbage and waste cleanup was less of a concern this year as well, Walker noted, who viewed the site Monday and said it's "coming down very quickly and most of the major stages are down already."

He also commended organizers for their site plan, which leaves ample room for the festival's continued growth.

"We have a lot of room to expand if (organizers) want to expand parking and camping," Walker said. "We'll see how the numbers shape up in terms of the attendees for next year, but we certainly see us continuing being land partners in the festival at this point."

Death casts shadow over fest; few security issues reported

The festival's second day was marred by the death of 21-year-old Regina man Nick Phongsavath, whose body was found in his tent at around 6 p.m.

While the RCMP's Integrated Homicide Investigation Team was called onto the scene, autopsy results showed that foul play was not a factor in the engineering student's death. No cause of death has been released as of press time, but the BC Coroners Office is investigating.

With a police presence bolstered by resources from detachments in the Lower Mainland, as well as municipal officers attached to integrated teams, RCMP dealt with a reasonably low number of incidents, with a total of 32 arrests made onsite between Thursday and Monday.

There were around 500 police and security staff on the festival grounds (see associated story on page 11).