The show won’t go on: despite proper permits, Wilmington walks back approval for free concerts

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Summer is just around the corner and live music season is getting underway, but Wilmington’s latest free-concert series, Downtown Alive Concerts, has come unplugged before a band ever hit the stage.

The city claims the concert series was canceled due to the burden that the events could cause on the businesses on the 200-block of Chestnut Street, mainly, the Cape Fear Club.

“Staff has determined that hosting a concert series in the location requested, and in adjacent surrounding areas will create an undue burden and thus will not allow the activity,” according to Community Services Director Amy Beatty in an email to the Downtown Business Alliance, the sponsors of the event, along with the event management companies.

However, a few weeks before that email was sent denying the series, city staff essentially said the opposite when a permit for the event was issued on April 27. And less than one month ago, Wilmington’s City Council approved an alcohol permit for the concert series, and both Mayor Bill Saffo and Mayor Pro Tem Haynes expressed support the efforts to bring free music downtown.

“It’s free concerts for people, which a lot of people like,” Saffo said in April. “Sometimes people can’t afford to go to some of the bigger concerts down at the amphitheater, or maybe something out at Greenfield Lake. We see it as a family oriented type of an event, and something that has been tremendously very successful for 18 years now.”

So why are events that have been ‘tremendously successful,’ now deemed as creating an ‘undue burden?’

“We were told that everyone had agreed to close the streets in the area...Unfortunately that was not the case and several businesses objected to the closure,” Saffo said on Thursday.

It’s not clear if the city requires unanimous approval of every property owner on a street before agreeing to close it for an event. The special event permitting process does not make any mention of objections by businesses or neighbors as a reason to deny a permit.

It’s also not clear which businesses Saffo is referring to that objected to the closure, or if they are even on Chestnut Street and would be impacted if the roads were closed.

The city does require notification of impacted parties, which, on the 200-block of Chestnut Street would include the Cape Fear Club, the CresCom Bank offices, and the New Hanover County Library.

“In an effort to improve communication and keep citizens, businesses and other establishments fully informed of all events that will potentially impact their area, the City requires organizers to follow a notification procedures. Failure to comply with these requirements will result in a reduced event evaluation score and may affect an event organizer’s ability to host events in the future,” according to the city policy.

Special event permits

The city allows special events and weighs the benefits with the possible impacts to surrounding properties. If staff decides the request meets the requirements, they can issue a permit --- in this case --- they did.

However, Wilmington is telling WECT the permit that was issued was ‘conditional.’

There are no conditions listed on the permit.

When pressed for further explanation, City Spokeswoman Jennifer Dandron said that part of the agreement was made verbally. She said the conditional permit was granted so the applicants could receive an ABC permit to serve alcohol on the street. This raises the question as to whether or not someone would go through the process and pay the fees associated with getting an ABC permit if they were not sure they would get approval for the event.

The impacts of the city pulling this permit are not just felt by music lovers, but also the musicians who were planning on playing the shows, vendors, and of course the event organizers.

With lineups already announced contracts could be broken now because of the city’s new stance on free concerts.

And when contracts get broken, people can lose money.

Gary Shipman, an attorney in Wilmington said those bands and other vendors who were relying on that permit could also take legal action against the city --- it comes down to one question.

“Were they engaged to provided services by the entity that did - if the answer to that is yes and everyone relied on the permit and they will suffer a loss meaning they cant make up those revenues from someplace else, that may in fact increase the damages the organizer of this event had because of all of the losses that those who likewise depended on the legitimacy of this permit are going to suffer,” he said.

There are still questions that have yet to be answered by the city like, whether or not one private club objecting to a street closure would prompt the city to call of something like Azalea Festival or the downtown farmer’s market.

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