Dissed by the ATL

Hip-hop fest is first victim of new city ordinance

Last week's squelching of a proposed "Woodstock of Hip-Hop" testifies to the broad new powers Atlanta has granted itself in regulating outdoor festivals.

So much power, in fact, that the city's 2-month-old festival ordinance was already of serious concern to veteran organizers of some of the city's largest events, one of whom is challenging the measure in federal court.

Since discussions over the prospective April hip-hip event broke down last week, Mayor Shirley Franklin's office has been engaged in a round of finger-pointing with local promoters representing the New York-based Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.

According to Miguel Savannah, a former NASCAR promoter, race was a prominent factor: "The city really got spooked after the NBA All-Star Weekend and felt like they couldn't handle another large black event so soon."

Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Greg Pridgeon, the man responsible for denying the application, counters that Savannah and his crew simply didn't have their act together and left too many details hanging for an estimated 50,000-person event less than one month away.

But City Hall would never have had a say in the matter had it not been for the new festival ordinance, approved by the City Council in January. In one of its more contentious provisions, large events held on private property are required to go through the same permit process as those seeking to use city land. The hip-hop festival was slated for the parking lot next to Turner Field.

Paul Cornwell, founder of the Coalition Against Marijuana Prohibition, says the city's rejection of the event underscores his belief that the new rules give the city too much leeway to pick and choose events based on political considerations.

"The city has a bias against a young, black crowd and it doesn't want rock and roll in its parks," he says.

Last month, Cornwell filed suit in federal court against the city. Among his laundry list of complaints: the ordinance calls for unreasonably high advance deposits, permit fees and insurance costs; its vague wording leaves too many details up to interpretation by city officials; and it puts too much authority in Pridgeon's hands.

Cornwell, founder of the embattled Great Atlanta Pot Festival, is the same cranky pro-marijuana activist who persuaded a judge to throw out a previous festivals ordinance.

Since 1996, the city has successfully managed to prevent Cornwell from staging another festival like the one in 1993 that brought more than 30,000 people to Piedmont Park for a day-long program of music and pro-legalization speeches, ending with a free concert by the Black Crowes.

Citing widespread pot-smoking by the crowd, then-Mayor Bill Campbell vowed to bogart future festival permits for Cornwell's annual event. The last, much smaller, pot festival, was held in 2000.

But Cornwell isn't the only one who has concerns about the ordinance. Wiley Sommerville, who's in charge of the Virginia-Highland Summerfest, is particularly uncertain about an ordinance provision that calls for the city to be divided up into five festival districts, each with their own city-employed "festival monitors," who will be empowered to shut down an event if he or she determines that there have been safety violations or the terms of the permit have been breached.

"They say the festival monitors will be well-trained, but we don't know what that entails," he says.

Donna Narducci, who heads the Atlanta Pride Festival, worries that the untested ordinance gives city officials too much power to postpone, restrict or even cancel major events.

"The ordinance as written lacks clarity and is open to interpretation," she says. "It's a concern to any festival director in town."

Among the unknowns are a requirement for organizers to police and clean up a three-block area around the actual festival site, which proves very costly depending on how it's enforced, Narducci says.

She says the new rules also fail to spell out an adequate appeals process for settling billing or procedural disputes with the city; require an up-front environmental impact fee that will make it more difficult to launch new festivals; and is unclear about the limits of a festival's liability regarding public-safety issues.

Says Narducci: "It's been passed and we'll abide by it, but I expect a lot more meetings with the city to figure out how to be in compliance."