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Fire code issues nearly cancel first Folk Fest, force venue change

November 3rd, 2011 6:47 am by Doug Janz

Fire code issues nearly cancel first Folk Fest, force venue change

The show will go on for the Johnson City Folk Festival. It just won’t be the same show people were expecting.

Over the course of a few hours Wednesday, the first ever JC Folk Fest went from proceeding as planned, to being canceled due to fire code problems, to being revived at a nearby location.

Organizers say the four-day festival will take place, running today through Sunday, but it won’t be in the old warehouse at 100 Ashe St. that they’d been fixing up for the event. Instead, it will be held at the other end of the block in a soon-to-be-opened restaurant and nightclub called The Battery — the former home of such businesses as Sunny’s Cafeteria and Spring Street Music Hall.

It was a whirlwind day for Folk Festival organizers Eric Sommer, David Pennington, Steve Scheu and others, who received word from the Johnson City Fire Department that the warehouse venue did not meet safety codes regarding fire alarms, interior finish and fire extinguishers and that generators needed inspection.

That effectively shut down the festival, but after some scrambling, organizers were able to gain use of The Battery property early in the evening and planned to work furiously during the night and this morning to prepare the venue for live music, which was scheduled to start at 10 a.m.

“That old warehouse was the perfect place for this festival,” said Sommer, a professional musician with a long history of recording and touring, plus a history of organizing grass-roots, urban events. “It was just beautiful. We’d done so much work to clean it up, and it had such a great atmosphere for this event. It would’ve set a great example for people to see, that we’d brought this old building back to life.

“The festival will go on, but it’ll be a shell of what it would’ve been. It won’t be the same.”

Organizers said they were shocked and disappointed by the news from the fire department. JCFD officials were not available for comment on Wednesday night.

“They told us we needed to install a $200,000 sprinkler system to do a four-day event,” said Pennington, one of the leaders of the Friends of Olde Downtowne. “We feel like we got the rug pulled out from under us.”

Sommer said they had hoped for a compromise from fire department officials, but were told there was nothing the department could do at this point, and that the festival should have notified the JCFD about this several months ago.

Organizers said that the fire department was aware of the event and had even had a fire department official at the venue several weeks ago helping to hang a large banner on the outside of the building, but no one said anything to them about not meeting code.

Pennington said he’d also gotten the impression that fire safety standards were different for permanent and temporary venues.

“We thought we’d notified the officials we needed to,” he said. “We had the property owner’s permission, we got permission from the city to close the street; we’re just flabbergasted.”

As for the new location, The Battery owner Jason Vanover said he was glad to be able to help out the festival by offering a last-minute venue. The Battery was scheduled to open in a couple of weeks but now will get an early start.

Admission to the festival is $5 per day.

Music is scheduled from 10 a.m. until after midnight each day, with a lineup that features 40-plus artists ranging from local, relative newcomers to touring professionals from as far away as Boston and Michigan. It is Sommer’s brainchild and came together through word of mouth and a strong volunteer effort, despite having almost no operating budget.

“This is very unfortunate,” Sommer said. “I think the fire department could have handled this differently.”

For more on the festival, visit   or find Johnson City Folk Festival on Facebook.

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