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Billy Strings will perform a two-night event at his 2023 Renewal Festival setting at The Meadows in Chaffee County, CO Image courtesy of Fireside Entertainment.

After a generally cordial review that saw significant community support, the Chaffee Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) gave unanimous conditional approval for Bonfire Entertainment to proceed with the 2023 Renewal Event scheduled for Labor Weekend at The Meadows, on the edge of Buena Vista. Their approval noted the fit of the promoter and entertainer to the community and the venue, and the growing need in this county to protect precious open spaces.

The approval is subject to a task list outlined in a resolution to be reviewed for approval at the April 4 BoCC meeting.

“This is the easiest year we’ve had, the application is almost identical to last year. We’ll be working again with the Chaffee County Community Foundation (CCCF), attendance numbers the same as last year, at 7,500. We got only a few comments from the Sheriff’s Office, and all of those have been addressed in the updated application – labeling and siting of campsites and lighting. We do have a new code for special event permits this year, under the point system for review… it has met or exceeded the five-point threshold for BoCC review — this is just for the 2023 event,” said Asst. County Attorney Miles Cottom.

“They have dialed in how they are constructing their sound. The application does call into question the nonprofit sound exemption…. we have no concerns with their ability to meet the requirements of the land use code as well as state statute. The staff has recommended approval … the one issue I noted is related to cell service. They couldn’t get a “cell on wheels” (known as a COW) to increase service… the only after-action report from last year said ‘let’s fix this,'” said Cottom.

Organizer Scotty Stoughton CEO of Bonfire Entertainment of Steamboat Springs, reviewed the general setup. “I’ve been producing here for seven years — the Campout for the Cause and the Renewal concerts….  we are a family-friendly festival. I’ve been promoting to this crowd for 15 years — we welcome the children and create an amazing family event,” explained Stoughton. “With our nonprofit relationships, it’s more purpose, less party We have no capacity issue, it’s the same days, the same number of days, we have an agreement with Chaffee County Community Foundation (CCCF). We donated $30,000 to it last year, we think we’re pushing $50,000 for this year.

The visual for the 2022 Renewal festival held at The Meadows. Courtesy of Bonfire Entertainment.

A few stats:

  • Sold 7,500 tickets last year and 1,500 of the ticket sales were local sales
  • 500 tickets are sold within 25 miles of the location
  •  Their ticket focus is to get them in the hands of locals – “it’s a community event … we geotarget zip codes to get to local tickets”
  • In age, attendees at past events were ages one to 75 years. Last year 600 children attended it and children under age 12 can attend for free.
  • They run a $20,000 greening program and this year hope to divert 62 percent of waste generated from the local landfill.

“Our satisfaction ranking as an event is 79 percent, while the industry is around 40 percent,” said Stoughton. “Our customers rated it as 100 percent likely to return. We are hoping for an on-sale in May around Bill Strings Red Rocks performance if you approve this permit.”

Stoughton said that the 2021 and 2022 economic impacts felt from direct and indirect revenue for the county were just shy of $2 million. He listed several improvements, better-marked lanes for roads, pedestrian lane spraying, and they are using 3-D CAD maps to map every single auto parking space, campground spacing, etc.

Stoughton said his team is improving their security with a professional security team of ex-military and ex-law enforcement to integrate with local law enforcement, and they test their emergency plans. “We are offering to run a test here; we did one at Winter Wonderland in Routt County too.”

Other improvements include shower trucks, a larger Kids’ Zone, and better IT provided by a nationwide company known as Echo Technologies. “They specialize in large music events – they do Austin City and Lollapalooza, they do high-density connectivity and know what they are doing.”

He added, “frankly, the land owner is attempting to put in a cell tower, but they discovered you have a moratorium on new cell towers in Chaffee County.”

“We see only a few challenges and we are asking today for conditional approval so we can sign the contracts … I am a small business owner. We are essentially a brick-and-mortar operating in your county,” said Stoughton. “For us not to understand our costs, our risks is a challenge to pulling off this event – I’ve got 15 vendors just waiting on your approval, with deposits in the hundreds of thousands of dollars… we are asking for conditional approval.”

“The easiest thing for me would be to ask you for more capacity, but I’m not doing that,” he added. “I want to get this right at 7,500, operating perfectly, not adding to the size – Bill Strings is conscious of keeping concerts affordable to the fans… we do a lot of work to ensure that this is accessible. Looking at the county costs we were 300 percent higher last year. You’ve probably heard that I’m currently being sued for not permitting an event that was properly permitted. In Steamboat, I was next to open space for a long time, then we had five years of construction next to us that is now condos and hotels … we think the majority of folks in the town and this county support this.”

“I’m interested in all the concerns and finding a balance to preserve the Meadows farm. I love this place and the Meadows,” added Stoughton. “But it’s a hell of a place to make a massive subdivision. If we can somehow do a few concerts there we can keep it a meadow, that will preserve it. I’ve been in a community where that went away.”

Stoughton added that Bonfire Entertainment just had its tenth anniversary of WinterWonderGrass in Steamboat. “We had 15,000 people and not a single problem – we have a great relationship. Next week I fly to Lake Tahoe for our seventh anniversary of Winter Grass there. Then it’s on the river for RiverWonderGrass and then to Renewal for what we hope is our third anniversary.”

“I have one question to staff on this tower moratorium – did we inadvertently create a situation we need to fix?” asked Commissioner Keith Baker

“As I understand it, someone asked about a cell tower. It requires a limited impact review and is subject to our moratoriums on limited impact review,” Cottom responded. “We found out later it came from The Meadows as a way to address the safety problems related to this event and it also relates to substandard communications capability in other areas of this county. It was a figurative wires-crossed thing. We may be able to create an exception for public safety.”

Public Comment Largely Positive

“This is a thoughtful and involved community partner – not a guy who slides into town and then leaves,” said Wendy Hall, there representing CCCF. “What he does leave behind is a financial gift to the community … I urge you to approve this permit and consider extending it for years to come.”

“As a business owner here for 12 years, I have found all the music events to be beneficial for business,” said Scott Johnson … “I laud the Selby family for purchasing the Meadows and keeping it green… they are preserving those water rights.”

“Speaking as a citizen I would like to support this,” said Buena Vista Mayor Libby Fay. “I can hear it from my house and it’s nice.”

“As the COO of South Main and the wife of the rancher who puts his highland cows out on The Meadows after the event, I can say there is massive support for this from local businesses and students,” said Sarah Anderson.

“The question is how to improve on Scotty’s event to minimize impacts on neighbors,” said Commissioner Greg Felt. Anderson responded that thinking long-term about the future of the area could provide community solutions.

“Culturally speaking, there is something real special happening here with the live music in the community and I haven’t seen it anywhere else in the country,” said Lariat Co-owner Zack Alexander. “… It’s been a real pleasure working with Scotty, who offered for us to have people purchase Renewal tickets at the Lariat from us – I’d like to see a five-year or at least a three-year permit.”

BoCC Deliberation

“This time last year I had conversations with Sheriff Spezze,” said Commissioner Greg Felt. “He felt vulnerable as the person responsible for public safety, undermanned … but in conversations with him after the event he felt he nailed it. “He added that he liked the idea of doing a public safety exercise ahead of time and Stoughton said he had no problem adding more security.”

“When you mentioned the grid in the venue, are you talking about rows of seating or something, so if there was a medical emergency they could get on the radio and say the problem is G7?” asked Baker.

“Yes,” answered Stoughton. “… clear lanes laid out to make it safer and a better user experience.”

The BoCC got clarification regarding better event signage, discussed firm stage concert ending timeframes to be called by Stoughton based on weather conditions, and confirmed that the camper ingress on Thursday was to resolve Friday traffic concerns. Bonfire Entertainment plans a mainstage end at 10:00 p.m., but asked for an 11:00 stage shutdown if needed for weather delays.

“I think this has been an event that works really hard to mesh well with the community and they do what they say they are going to do with minimal disruption to the neighbors,” said Commissioner P.T. Wood. “… it seems to me this is a way to monetize the space so they don’t feel compelled to develop it. We know that value that people who live here place on these open spaces … this part of our county is special and needs preservation.”

“Scotty has worked hard to address community concerns and that distinguishes you from other groups. It’s appreciated,” said Felt. “I think there are trade-offs in this valley, a lot of pressure for growth and to develop and that property provides a number of vital functions. It is worthy of our work to preserve and protect.”

“I echo my colleagues, this has been a good public hearing, I’m a big music fan, which has no direct bearing on the decision process, but we should acknowledge the prominence that a musician of Billy Strings’ talent has in the world,” said Baker.

Commissioner Wood made the notion for conditional approval of Renewal 2023, directing staff to prepare a resolution for consideration at the April 4 BoCC meeting. He added that he encourages Bonfire Entertainment to look at a multi-year contract moving forward. The motion was seconded by Felt and passed unanimously.

“It feels really nice to be appreciated and welcomed into the community,” concluded Stoughton.