By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Tall Stacks wasn't dead in the water after its fourth voyage in 1999, but it was losing steam. The country's largest riverboat festival managed to break even, but everyone involved agreed a change of course was necessary.
For its fifth time out, Tall Stacks, Oct. 15-19, has been transformed into the biggest musical event held in Greater Cincinnati - five days, four stages, 30 national acts and more than 50 local artists. "Our executive committee decided after the 1999 Tall Stacks, that, while everybody loves the boats, having done it four times, we needed to reinvent Tall Stacks," said Peter Gomsak, president of the board of the Tall Stacks Commission. "We realized we needed to change the event to appeal to a broader audience, to younger people, more African-Americans, to really appeal to the entire community."
Tall Stacks was in danger of becoming Branson, Mo., with steamboats, an attraction whose audience carries AARP cards, not iPods.
"There really wasn't stuff for younger people," said Tall Stacks marketing director Karen Bender. "You want to go out and hear some good music and have a few drinks and eat some good food. And Tall Stacks just didn't have that element to appeal to that younger demographic."
To produce the 2003 Tall Stacks, the commission contracted with Music and Event Management Inc. (MEMI), a subsidiary of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra that oversees Riverbend and produces Jammin' on Main.
"We just looked at it and said, 'How can we make it better?' " said Mike Smith, vice president and CEO of MEMI. "And I think New Orleans Jazz & Heritage and Beale Street (Memphis) and Bonnaroo (Nashville) and other festivals were the motivation that the music component can enhance the overall event."
Becoming competitive costs money. The music festival upgrade raised the Tall Stacks budget from $8 million in 1999 to $11 million.
With financial aid from the private and public sector, including a $600,000 grant from the Ohio Bicentennial Commission, Smith and his organization have been working for 18 months to create a festival to compete with those internationally known events, but with a much less expensive ticket price. The souvenir pin that serves as a five-day pass costs just $12, on sale Saturday at Kroger stores.
"We found there were people that would like to come down and participate in the festival, but it wasn't their cup of tea to go on a boat ride with dinner. So let's add another element. ... We have a market that's 1.7 million people. Let's take advantage of that and offer all 1.7 million something to do," Smith said.
The riverboats remain a major draw. More than 83,000 of the 117,000 available cruise tickets - about 75 percent - have been sold since going on sale Nov. 3. Weekend tickets are almost sold out, but good cruise tickets remain for the Wednesday and Thursday (Oct. 15-16) cruises.
The Tall Stacks Commission estimates the festival will draw at least half a million people, around half from outside the region, creating an area economic impact of $41 million. Even before the music festival announcement, most hotel rooms in downtown Cincinnati have been booked for Tall Stacks weekend. Northern Kentucky hotels are at 80 percent capacity.
The Tall Stacks Commission has asked Hamilton County for an additional $100,000 in support, promising tax revenues from the event in excess of $650,000.
But the benefits of a successful music festival go far beyond immediate revenues, said John Elkington, the Memphis developer behind the Beale Street revival. He cites the success of his city's annual music festival as the single most powerful engine driving Memphis' downtown revival.
"Our biggest nights on Beale Street are the nights when the Beale Street Music Festival is here," said the developer. "Even though there's maybe 100,000 people on the river, there's people all up and down the street and they then go on to the clubs. That's how all the places on Beale started."
The expanded music fest faces several challenges, including the city's lingering entertainment boycott. All acts have been told of that situation, Gomsak said, but all have agreed to perform.
"We do not have any great concern about that," he said of the boycott. "We have a diverse board. We've partnered with the Underground Railroad Museum. We think this is a celebration of all of Cincinnati."
If the music festival works in 2003, there are plans to make it an annual event (the boats will be back in 2007).
"This is not Metallica and Lynyrd Skynyrd or even Bad Company," Smith said. "People have worked very hard to maintain the integrity of the music and its roots and the cultural implications. This is about the music of the region, the music of the river."
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