Thousands of music fans packed downtown Jasper for the 2017 Foothills Festival.
File photo - Ron Harris
By ED HOWELL, Daily Mountain Eagle
The Jasper City Council is expected to hear a pitch soon for more talent funding for the Foothills Festival, with Mayor David O’Mary noting the need for such festivals to improve the community.
Speaking at the Feb. 2 work session of the Jasper City Council, Councilman Gary Cowen brought up the subject of the festival, which is scheduled to take place again in downtown Jasper on Sept. 7-8. He said the festival would be raised at the next work session.
Zach Baker, an advertisement representative for the Daily Mountain Eagle, is the talent buyer for the festival, which features free outdoor concerts that are attended by thousands of people. The Eagle is also listed as a sponsor of the event, which last year featured artists such as John Paul White, formerly of The Civil Wars, and the Spin Doctors.
The SteelDrivers, a bluegrass band which took home a Grammy Award in 2016, have already been booked to be the Friday headliners at this year’s festival.
Cowen said he recently ran into Baker, who expressed concern. The council gave Baker $45,000 for purchasing talent, but he said he was about $15,000 short “of making this a great show,” as opposed to an average show.
While Cowen quoted Baker as saying that 2016 was a tremendous show, he was disappointed with 2017. He noted he has to buy talent when it is open to him in the next few weeks. Cowen said he mentioned it to O’Mary, who said it was up to the council but it is possible the city could find some money. He said O’Mary and Councilman Sonny Posey feels positive about doing more to make the festival better.
“Zach will come in two weeks, but I’ve tentatively said, ‘Zach, if you need it to make it a great show, spend a little bit more but you’ve got to come to present it to the city council. This work session was busy, so Zach is going to come present it two weeks from now.”
O’Mary said he is “pro Foothills, 100 percent” and noted he had met Baker for the first time recently. “He seemed like a nice young man,” he said, noting other officials have also spoke well of Baker, who also has been a music agent for the past 16 years.
He noted he hears people across the city sometimes talk about whether the money spent on the festival is justified.
“I don’t think it is about a fella from Winfield gathering up his wife and we’re having a meal and buying four bottles of beer,” he said. “It is a cultural thing.” Cowen said he agreed.
The mayor said he didn’t know how to measure that, but he pointed to the February edition of National Geographic, where former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave an interview in a story called “Why Cities are Leading the Way.” O’Mary quoted from the story as saying roughly two-thirds of people will live in major cities by 2050. Currently 31 cities exist with 10 million people or more; by 2030 that will grow to 41 cities.
O’Mary said the article indicates that people are flocking to cities and the marketplace, including young people, indicates that is where it wants to be. Big cities provide culture, cosmopolitan and provide a faster pace of life.
“That’s why you do it, in my opinion,” O’Mary said.
He raised the question of how much should be spent out of the city budget for culture. He said he didn’t know, and, questioned by O’Mary, City Engineer Joe Matthews said he had not researched the question.
“But that is something I definitely think we need to get right, whatever it is,” O’Mary said.
Cowen said he had some business dealings with a company in Panama City, Fla., where two of the engineers there played in a local band. Two years ago, they asked Cowen who was playing that year at the Foothills Festival. He quoted them as saying that they usually bring a group up to that festival and stay overnight, saying it was one of the best things in the area.
He was stunned they knew about the festival.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” he said. “They could tell me when we had Gin Blossom or whoever the devil it was. I was shocked. I said, ‘Are you telling me people from Panama City come up to Jasper, Alabama, for a festival?’ This is reverse. He said, ‘Yeah, it’s great.’”
Cowen said one thing Baker said that Cowen wasn’t necessarily for was that the city misses a giant opportunity for charging, noting people from the Birmingham area would gladly pay for talent involved. “I said, “Zach, I kind of like where it is now,’” he said.
O’Mary said he would try to do some research on the issue, noting he also wants to make sure the city doesn’t spend more than it needs to.
Councilman Danny Gambrell noted the city also stages its fireworks show on July 4 free to the public. “Those are the kind of things we do. It pays dividends for us,” he said. “It is a good feeling by the people. It recognizes the City of Jasper and the business people. But there are several things we do that we don’t charge that I think we get a lot more out of than charging people.”
“It is one of those things I definitely think we need to get right,” O’Mary said, indicating maybe Baker can address the question of the value of having the performances in the city.
While he noted the costs point out that there are “two sides to every story,” Cowen pointed out the potential of Baker can get some big names to perform. He said if he can provide well known names, it might make it easier to raise funds for the event.
Gambrell raised a question, which had been raised to him by citizens, of possibly adding some Southern gospel artists. Officials in the room were open to the idea. City attorney Russ Robertson noted City Stages in Birmingham used to have chamber music in a church and Southern gospel music in its own tent, “a little bit distant from the rock and roll.
Officials noted that Southern gospel was held one year at Sherer Auditorium during the Foothills Festival.