Despite lingering financial and legal questions, Oak Bluffs selectmen on Monday decided the show must go on and unanimously voted to accept a proposal from the organizers of the Boston Pops concert to again hold the popular event this summer in Ocean Park.
The concert organizers — Festival Network LLC — are planning an expanded event this year with food and alcohol sales and a longer running time from early afternoon to late evening. They are also looking to contract with at least one national sponsor that could include product sampling and special tents. The concert is scheduled for Sunday, August 10.
In response to plans for the expanded event, selectmen last month asked town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport to research several legal questions about the concert. The longtime town counsel found that the town cannot legally allow a private company to use a public park unless there is a clear and equal public benefit.
Selectmen then asked Festival Network to submit a detailed report of how they planned to fulfill the required public benefit. The response, submitted on March 28, states the town will receive $1 for every ticket sold. It also states they plan to hire mostly local workers to staff the event and would provide fund-raising opportunities for three Island nonprofits: Vineyard House, the Martha’s Vineyard YMCA and the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.
Selectmen learned on Monday that the hospital has since decided to not participate in the festival.
The plan calls for each nonprofit to be allocated between 300 to 350 reserve location tickets, for which they would pay Festival Network face value. They would then have the opportunity to sell the tickets at a higher cost than face value and keep the profit.
The proposal also stipulates that pre-production of the event will commence on the morning of August 8 — two days before the concert — with approximately 20 per cent of Ocean Park to be closed for advance set-up.
Organizers agreed to reimburse the town for any expenses incurred during the event, including the cost of police details, emergency medical technicians and fire personnel. The proposal also stipulates that people who buy tickets and enter the concert will be able to leave the confines of Ocean Park and later return.
Selectmen sent the proposal to Mr. Rappaport last week for a legal review which answered some questions while raising new ones. The town counsel noted that concert organizers fulfilled the required public benefit last year by giving a portion of the ticket sales directly to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.
It was less clear whether allowing the nonprofits to sell the tickets at a mark-up served that same purpose, Mr. Rappaport concluded.
“Offering not-for-profits the ability to sell tickets at a ‘mark-up’ . . . is, as I understand it, significantly different from the arrangement with Martha’s Vineyard Hospital during last summer’s event,” he wrote.
Mr. Rappaport found it difficult to define exactly what constitutes a public benefit. He wrote that in the absence of a clear definition of the term “obvious public purpose,” the selectmen and the park commissioners have some discretion.
“If you determine there is an ‘obvious public purpose,’ I cannot state with certainty that your determination would ultimately withstand judicial scrutiny; however, in my opinion it is not likely that a court would enjoin the town from authorizing the event,” he wrote.
Mr. Rappaport concluded it would be easier for the town to justify holding the event if the amount paid to the town were increased and if the nonprofits were only required to remit a portion rather than the full value of the tickets. He also recommended limiting commercial vendors to reduce the commercial nature of the event, and suggested the price for the tickets to the public be clearly affordable.
Selectmen held a special meeting Monday to review the proposal from concert organizers and the legal opinion. Festival Network senior producer Rick White said his organization satisfied the required public benefit.
Mr. White also emphasized that the event is actually the Martha’s Vineyard Festival and not just the Boston Pops. Plans for future festivals might include art exhibits, dance films and other events, he said.
“Martha’s Vineyard is a unique place with perhaps the highest cultural quotient on the planet. We want to point up all the cultural aspects of this dynamic community and add to them,” he said.
Mr. White also suggested the festival may be expanded in the future to a two-day event.
Several residents and business owners raised questions about the event, although few opposed it. Many questioned whether the town was being properly compensated for giving up the park for parts of three days in the middle of one of the busiest weeks of the summer.
“These people are here to make money, they’re not here to bring culture to Oak Bluffs, let’s not forget that,” said Rowland avenue resident Barbara Hoyle. “I don’t think we should be so shy about asking for them to pay us . . . this town is already short on money.”
“I don’t want [selectmen] to undersell the town,” agreed Chestnut avenue resident Peggy McGrath. “I think we’re worth more than one dollar per ticket.”
Several business owners expressed concerns that the food and alcohol vendors might take away business on one of their busiest nights of the season.
But many number said they fully supported the event and said they worried continued scrutiny might jeopardize what was widely regarded last year as a positive event.
“We have a town that attracts some of the most wonderful events ever created — a prime example being the Boston Pops concert. How many other towns anywhere can claim to have this wonderful opportunity?” asked Renee Balter, former president of the Oak Bluffs Association. “Let’s not scare away such a good thing.”
A few selectmen agreed there was no need to deliberate the proposal further. “I don’t think every event we have is a business event, and this is clearly a people event,” selectman Duncan Ross said.
Selectman Greg Coogan advocated for town officials and residents to take the long view.
“We need to look at the big picture and stop worrying about trying to make this the perfect event this year,” he said. “We will work with these people and come up with the best plan for everyone as we move forward.”
But chairman Kerry Scott urged the board to remain diligent in pressing the Festival Network to do more to fulfill the required public benefit. She also expressed concerns when it was revealed that the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital had requested not to participate in the fund-raising efforts.
Ms. Scott also cited a portion of Mr. Rappaport’s legal opinion that read: “While the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital is available to everyone in the event of a medical emergency, and therefore serves the general public, I express no opinion on whether the other two fall within a similar category.”
Ms. Scott said the hospital’s decision to drop out raised new legal questions that should be addressed before selectmen voted on the proposal. She also questioned whether the proposal would force the nonprofits to compete against each other to sell tickets to raise funds.
“The Island nonprofits have to walk a fine line for [their fund raising] efforts, simply because there are so many of them and so few dollars to go around. They realize they are all fishing from the same pond. I would hate to think we are fostering a spirit of competition among them,” Ms. Scott said.
Following the meeting, Rachel Vanderhoop, hospital director of development, confirmed the hospital had opted out of the festival because. “We didn’t want to compete with our fellow charities,” she said.
In the end selectmen unanimously voted to approve the proposal from Festival Network with two conditions: that the two sides continue to negotiate the amount of $1 allotted to the town for each ticket sold, and that Mr. Rappaport provide a legal opinion about the hospital’s decision to drop out.