The sleepy lakeside community of Mariaville could see the return of Camp Bisco this summer, but Schenectady County officials aren’t about to make it easy for those hoping to revive the controversial music festival.
The festival has a new organizer and would feature a lineup designed to attract an older audience, but the county is objecting to any festival — even a reinvented one — that doesn’t include a zero-tolerance policy toward drug use. And with litigation still pending against the county and the festival’s previous organizers related to a 2012 incident that left a Schenectady woman in a coma, the county is now asking the new organizers for much more insurance coverage.
“The application that was submitted presented concerns around traffic and around emergency evacuations,” said County Attorney Chris Gardner. “And there is concern about what in the past has been open drug dealing at Camp Bisco, so we are seeking a police presence within the festival grounds to deter that and reduce it significantly, and we’re asking for a higher insurance rate because of the issues that arose in 2012.”
The festival was held at Indian Lookout Country Club, a 200-acre venue in Mariaville, for seven straight years until last summer, when Denver-based organizer MCP Presents announced the festival was going on hiatus.
It wasn’t exactly a shock. Bisco, a three-day electronic dance music festival headlined by The Disco Biscuits, had drawn negative headlines in recent years after a staff member was found dead in his tent and local health officials reported a spike in drug and alcohol overdoses each time the event rolled around. In 2013, festival organizers and the campground owner were hit with a lawsuit on behalf of Heather Bynum, a 2012 festivalgoer whose mother says emergency responders took too long to get to Bynum after she suffered a massive seizure at the event and fell into a coma.
The country club’s owner, Frank Potter, and Ken Hays, who founded Gathering of the Vibes nearly 20 years ago, are now hoping to revive the festival in July with a greater emphasis on safety and a more-relaxed vibe.
“Safety is paramount to all parties involved,” said Hays, the new organizer who brought Gathering of the Vibes to Mariaville in the early 2000s. “We have contracted with Albany Medical Center to have a minimum of three physicians on site and to have an on-site field hospital. We’ve gone far beyond the state-required regulations as they apply to emergency management and keeping everyone safe.”
But the county doesn’t seem to agree. This week, it denied Hays’ application for a mass-gathering permit, even after he had received official go-ahead from state police, the state Department of Health and the state Department of Transportation to bring the three-day festival back to town.
In a 22-page denial, county officials listed numerous objections to plans Hays submitted. The county expressed concerns with the organizer’s plans for easing traffic congestion that would allow for emergency vehicles to get to the site quickly and contingency plans should a large fire or mass-casualty event occur at the site. They questioned whether the limited liability corporation Hays formed in December has the financial resources to execute all its plans for the event and criticized the lack of a mechanism to shelter attendees in the case of severe weather.
By far, the most concerns were expressed by Sheriff Dominic Dagostino, who said Hays’ application offered no plan for reducing the pervasive drug use that abounds each year at Camp Bisco.
“Camp Bisco has failed to create a zero-tolerance policy towards drug use in the past,” he wrote in the denial, “and the applicant has not provided any evidence that the proposed 2015 event would mitigate this very serious issue which imperils the health and welfare of the residents and visitors of Schenectady County.”
Gardner said the county wants some kind of police presence within the grounds, be it local or state. Jim Kelly, an attorney for Potter, said that would be unprecedented and inconsistent with state regulations for mass-gathering permits.
“In all the years that [Potter] has done mass gatherings, including his Harley Rendezvous, he has always gotten the necessary permits, and at all times, police agencies have respected the fact that the property is private and he takes care of any issues on the property himself,” Kelly said. “In fact, he frequently turns over people who violate protocols to the police directly.
“It’s somewhat surprising they would think this private property should be open to them. Mr. Potter and the people who want to run the festival have complied with all regulations, which strike an appropriate balance between the state’s interests and respecting private property rights.”
Dagostino pointed out Camp Bisco’s previous organizers attempted to prevent deputies from entering the property at the 2013 festival after a staff member died of a presumed drug overdose before the first band had even taken the stage.
“Camp Bisco has demonstrated that it cannot, on its own, prevent drug use at the event,” Dagostino wrote.
County officials say Hays is free to resubmit his application, but it must include a contractual agreement with law enforcement agencies to provide at least 20 officers assigned to traffic control and 50 officers stationed throughout the grounds 24 hours a day, as well as drug-sniffing dogs at entrance gates and throughout the property.
“We do have concerns with the way it’s been run in the past, but we’ll likely be having a meeting with Mr. Potter and the organizer to see if they are willing to be more reasonable in ensuring that an individual who attends won’t be subject to harm,” Gardner said. “Our consideration is for the young people in particular who plan to attend the event.”
Both Potter and Hays say this year’s festival would cater to an older audience, however, with musical acts scheduled for July 16, 17 and 18 (setup would begin the July 15, with breakdown July 19). Hays declined to disclose the full lineup until all approvals are in hand, though he confirmed Disco Biscuits would remain as the headliner.
“We made a deliberate effort to contract with bands that typically bring an older demographic,” Hays said. “We’ve been working with Disco Biscuits for 15-plus years, and they’ve played Gathering of the Vibes many times. I felt that this event could move forward once we’ve addressed the issues the local community has because people should have the opportunity to gather with friends and family on a beautiful piece of land in Mariaville.”
Residents are already objecting to Camp Bisco’s return and were going door to door with a petition earlier this week. Deborah Mustico, who lives about a mile and a half from the grounds, said she hadn’t even heard of the event’s possible return until a petitioner showed up at her door Wednesday night.
“I feel like they’re deliberately trying to keep it under the radar until it’s a done deal,” she said.
Mustico lives at the corner of Duanesburg Churches Road and Batter Street and says cars are parked just 100 feet from her bedroom window during the festival. Each year, she can hear music until 3 a.m. After the last festival in 2013, she found used toilet paper and sanitary napkins in her yard.
“I don’t object to this guy having a few events up the street,” she said. “I can live with the Harley Rendezvous. I could live with Gathering of the Vibes. But Camp Bisco I can’t take.”
Town of Duanesburg officials are urging organizers to rename the event to help “dispel any negative mindsets” attached to the Camp Bisco name, according to a Dec. 26 letter from town Planning Board Chairwoman Sandra Scott.
It’s unclear what approvals, if any, the town has given the festival. Town Supervisor Roger Tidball said he didn’t know much about the proposal and any approvals would go through the Planning Board. Planning officials did not return calls for comment Friday.