BRIDGEPORT — It’s four days of nearly non-stop music in Seaside Park that, during the past five years, featured such performers as Crosby, Stills & Nash, Elvis Costello and the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, and has drawn 20,000 people.
It’s provided a showcase for local talent like Milford’s Kicking Daisies, which at the time featured Caitlin and Carly Kalafus, the daughters of Chris Kalafus, West Shore Middle School’s heralded music teacher; Bridgeport’s Deep Banana Blackout; and New Haven’s Kung Fu.
It’s helped pay for the splash pad at Luis Munoz Marin Park; raised $25,000 for the families of Lt. Steven Velasquez and Michel Baik, the two firefighters who died while battling a 2010 blaze; and collected 7,600 pounds of nonperishable goods for local food banks last year. This year’s plan is to help fund a local park for the physically and mentally challenged.
But mention the Gathering of the Vibes, and its critics bring up the never-ending FBI investigation of missing tanks of confiscated nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas; annual arrests for dealing marijuana, Ecstasy and heroin; and the drug-induced deaths of Jay Caliro, 29, of East Meadow, N.Y. in 2009 and Elizabeth Meryl Miller, 23 of Memphis, in 2010.
There are also the complaints from nearby restaurateurs and store owners who see 20,000 potential customers locked inside a gated compound, police who claim their jobs are being taken over by private security guards and people who rail about free passes given to Bridgeport city officials.
Now, nearing the end of a five-year contract that paid the city $40,000 annually for renting Seaside Park, the future of the Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport now rests at the negotiating table.
“I hope we are allowed back,” said Ken Hays, the Vibes founder. “I love Seaside Park. I want to stay here. But $40,000 rental is my limit. Everyone thinks I’m making $1 million a show, that’s not even close. There have been years I’ve lost money because of the weather, the competition and the lineup.”
Mayor Bill Finch appears to want them back. He called the event “an exciting addition to Bridgeport’s vibrant arts and culture scene and ... a great showcase for the city to visitors from all over the region and the country.”
But Kristine Coyle, a city homeowner who visits Seaside Park nearly every day, doesn’t think $40,000 is enough to close half the park to residents for a week.
“I would like to see more transparent interaction regarding this event that closes my favorite park for seven days,” she said. “How is Bridgeport making money on this event?”
That’s a question Andre Baker, a city councilman is hoping to answer.
“I’m going to be doing more research on what they pay and how it’s disbursed to see if this is profitable for the city,” he said. “I don’t hear about any major revenue coming into the city or the pockets of local businessmen.”
But Mary Jane Foster, who lost a mayoral primary to Finch last year and lately hasn’t sided with the mayor on many issues, agrees the Vibes is a perfect showcase for the city.
“I’m a big believer in critical mass,” said Foster, a former owner of the Bridgeport Bluefish baseball team. “The more people you attract, the more opportunity for them to return.”
Hays said he has another venue in mind if Bridgeport prices him out.
But that doesn’t trouble Baker.
“If they leave, I don’t mind,” he said.
Walk the routes leading to the Vibes, and you’ll hear store owners like Kulwant Lamba at the Campus Package Store, Lassad Benhassen at Sammy’s Dollar Store, Muhammad Chekel at Park Avenue Deli and News and Lenny Mastri who helps out at Seaside Market complain that the traffic detours around their businesses and the unwillingness of Vibes security to frequently open and close their gates to concertgoers keeps their expected business down.
“We should be doing 10 times more business than we are,” said Mastri. “But first, the people have to sweet talk the security guards to let them out. Then, they’re forced to take a 45-minute hike for what should be a two-minute walk.”
But Hays disputes those claims, saying anyone with a wristband can come and go, but must consent to another search before coming back.
Still, Tony Malinowski at Pop’s Grocery, 162 Main St., found a way around these issues. He advertises a pick-up and return service through social media, fliers and word of mouth.
“Our business is up around 20 percent when the Vibes is here,” he said. “People can call ahead and we’ll pick them up and drop them off at any of the three main gates.”
This year Pop’s, which is celebrating 50 years in business, may have competition.
Mastri printed a Vibes Survival Guide, which he intends to hand out to the lines of drivers waiting to enter the concert. The double-sided flier features a map to Seaside Market, a number to call for a ride and a sample menu. “I’m going to hand out 1,000 of these,” he said.
What Hays hands out — free weekend passes — to Finch, councilmen and the Park Board, rankles some.
Hays believes it’s necessary for those involved in contract negotiations to see compliance and view attendees’ behavior.
“Hopefully, I’ll be coming before the City Council in a few months for a renewal and they’ll have a full and better understanding of what we’re doing,” he said.
Baker, known for questioning the mayor and the council, has no problem with the freebie. “I got them. I’m not going to use them.”
Foster believes such gifts put the recipients in an awkward position.
“On balance, I think it’s far smarter for elected officials who negotiate or approve contracts not to accept free offers from people they are dealing with,” she said. “It creates at least an appearance of a conflict. Why do that?”
Then there’s the question of drug dealing, the two deaths and the never-ending federal probe.
Police made 27 felony and 17 misdemeanor arrests in 2010, and 35 and 10 respectively last year.
“The nitrous oxide thing is over,” said Hays. “We inspect every vehicle and every person who comes in,” he said, adding anyone caught with drugs is turned over to police.
“It’s been brutal,” Hays said of the federal probe. “Its cost me tens of thousands of dollars. They subpoenaed eight years of documents, contracts, everyone’s emails.”
Neither Hays, his staffers, vendors or security guards have been charged with any wrongdoing.
“It’d be nice if they finally told me we appreciate your cooperation, you’re doing everything right. But,” he added, “grand juries never die, they just fade away.”
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