Music festival starts on sour note but support grows
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
July 27, 2012 · Updated 3:25 PM
A new merchant in downtown Oak Harbor wants to replicate the success a Florida island community had in revitalizing business through music, but has met with some resistance from a surprising source: local politics.
Michael-John Paparella, owner of Michael-John’s Trading Post, is the force behind the Oak Harbor Music and Jazz Festival, which will bring fun and festivities downtown on the normally quiet Labor Day weekend.
Paparella has big plans for the event and has already booked a full roster of national talent, including Groove for Thought, the Still Bill Band with the Motown Cruises, and Cheryl Jewell and the Saltwater Octet. The event has a website, www.oakharbormusicfestival.com.
He’s currently looking for local bands, vendors for an art-and-craft show and sponsors. He wants local church choirs and groups to perform on Sunday, which will be dedicated to gospel and Christian music.
“I know people will love it,” he said. “It’s going to be a big success. I have no doubt.”
Paparella moved to Oak Harbor from Pensacola Beach, where he survived two hurricanes and the BP Oil spill. He was among the business people who helped revitalize the Gulf of Mexico community by creating music festivals that have grown and flourished.
“We really turned the community around through music,” he said. “It was all about the music. It was to get folks focused on what we can do to bring life back.”
Paparella moved to Oak Harbor last year and opened his little shop downtown. He was expecting Mayberry, he said, but instead found a fractured community of merchants who had suffered through a lengthy road construction project in the midst of the Great Recession. Some people are holding onto grudges related to the conversion of the road to a one-way street.
Paparella said he decided that music could heal the wounds by bringing people together and helping the downtown economy. He joined the Downtown Merchants Association and started proposing ideas for music festivals and events.
But, he said, each time he presented a new idea, it was shot down. He was told it would be too rainy, too cold, nobody would show up, it wouldn’t work.
“It was crazy. Just stupid, stupid excuses,” he said.
He claimed that, ironically, some of the people who complained when the chamber decided not to hold its event — the Fourth of July parade — on Pioneer Way are the same people who balked at the idea of the merchants putting on their own event on the street.
Paparella said he finally tired of the bellyaching and decided that a jazz festival was the best idea. He wanted it to be a fundraiser for a different local recipient each year. This year, he wants to help the Blue Fox Drive-In as the owners struggle to convert to digital technology.
He had offered to let the merchants association have the event, but went forward on his own after the members refused. He and supporters are starting a nonprofit organization to run the event.
“I think someday they will look back and wish it was their event,” he said.
Then the negative emails started. He received messages from people who don’t want the event to happen and don’t want the money to go to Blue Fox. He received a mysterious email stating that someone was trying to sabotage the music festival and the carnival he had planned to run in conjunction with it. Shortly afterward, the carnival company unexpectedly pulled out.
One morning Paparella arrived at work to find the front of the shop plastered with signs saying that he’s not wanted, the festival is not wanted and he should go back to Florida.
He almost did leave, but then decided not to let a handful of angry people upend his dream. He said that people have been hurt in the wrangling over downtown and aren’t thinking clearly.
“They have something really good here if they forget about this nonsense,” he said.
Since then, things have turned around. Paparella said city employees and the Chamber of Commerce have been very helpful. A number of downtown merchants are working hard to make the festival happen. The majority of members of the merchants association voted to become a sponsor of the event after Paparella agreed that the proceeds from the arts-and-crafts show will pay for insurance coverage for year-round merchant association events. Other revenues will still be donated to the Blue Fox.
Kristi Jensen, a member of the merchants association, said the music festival is a great idea.
“The more fun stuff we can have downtown, the better,” she said. “We need some fun around here.”
Jensen said there are critics, but she feels it’s just because the festival is a new idea. She suspects they will come aboard if the festival is a success.
“There are always those who are positive and those who are negative,” she said. “Right now the positives outweigh the negatives.”
As for Paparella, he’s going full stream ahead with his plans.
“I am not looking to get anything from this,” he said. “I want to give something to the community and help the community create an identity.”
Help spread the music
Local talent is needed for the first annual Oak Harbor Music and Jazz Festival set for Friday through Sunday, Aug. 31 to Sept. 2.
The festival will offer jazz, gospel, R&B, folk, karaoke and more, all for free, plus arts and crafts booths, food vendors and a carnival in Oak Harbor.
In its inaugural year, the festival will benefit the Blue Fox Drive-In in its efforts to move into the digital age. Event creator Michael-John Paparella said the festival will benefit a different “good cause” each year.
“What a better way to bring life back to an area than music,” Paparella said, adding that he hopes the event helps everyone in Oak Harbor, including businesses, hotels and more.
“I just want the whole city to be filled with music,” he added.
For details or to sign up, visit www.oakharbormusic festival.com.
Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at email@example.com or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.