After a tumultuous time leading up to its opening, the Johnson City Folk Festival got off to a modest, relatively smooth start on Thursday as it settled into its new home at 106 Spring St.
The four-day, downtown festival endured a dramatic, late venue switch due to fire code problems, from a warehouse setting at one end of the block to the confines of the soon-to-open restaurant The Battery perhaps 200 yards away, in the old Sunny’s Cafeteria location.
Volunteers worked late into Wednesday night and again Thursday morning to move a stage, banners, chairs, cases of drinks and other items down the block to the new Folk Fest quarters, and by Thursday afternoon there was live music.
“We’re not going to be defeated,” organizer Eric Sommer said. “We got everything moved down here and set up, there’s music on stage and we’re rolling. The train is back on the track.”
The festival runs through Sunday, featuring music from about 40 performers, coming from as far as Boston, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Athens, Ga. There is no big-name headliner, and Sommer said the emphasis is on sounding good and having something to say rather than looking good or recording for a big label.
Admission is $5 per day.
The grassroots festival was intended to have a lean, urban feel to it, using the old warehouse at the Roan Street end of the block. Volunteers did plenty of clean-up work on the warehouse but ran into trouble on Wednesday when Johnson City Fire Department Fire Marshal Sam McLain inspected the place and came up with a long list of items that didn’t meet safety requirements — meaning there would be no festival in the warehouse.
Sommer had called the whole thing “absurd.” He and his fellow organizers said they felt they’d been treated unfairly and that the JCFD should have worked with them to allow the festival to go on.
But City Manager Pete Peterson on Thursday defended the department’s actions.
“We became aware they were making alterations to the warehouse and we went down and observed them doing work without a permit, they had not put in any sort of fire detection or suppression equipment, there was an inadequate number of doors for egress or emergency exit — there were a number of lifesaving issues that had not been addressed,” Peterson said. “Nor had promoters contacted anybody with the fire department.
“Based on state codes we’re charged with enforcing, and just mainly protecting the safety of the general public, we just could not allow that event to go on in that building.
“At the last minute we became aware of it, and we got painted as the bad guys. It’s been frustrating on our end. We certainly want to see businesses be successful and downtown be a vibrant, fun place to hold events, but even more importantly, if people go somewhere it has to be safe while they’re there.”
Fortunately for the festival, the venue at the other end of the block was available. Organizers David Pennington and Steve Scheu hurried down to The Battery, still being fitted for a proposed mid-December opening, found owner Jason Vanover there and a deal was struck.
“It’s unexpected, to say the least,” Vanover said, cracking a smile. “I’m glad it worked out and we were able to be some kind of assistance. We need more events and more people downtown.”
The soon-to-be eatery wasn’t set up for music performance. It will be an upscale restaurant specializing in steak and seafood, with a raw bar. But festival volunteers transformed it into a music venue with stage and full bar.
Attendance was slow in the afternoon as the festival got going, then picked up to a modest but respectable level as the evening wore on.
Sommer said he hadn’t slept yet but he was feeling very good about the festival, an improvement on his outlook from the night before.
“The venue is great. And without David Pennington and Steve Scheu and the Friends of Old Downtowne, we couldn’t have made this happen,” he said.
For more on the festival, visit www.johnsoncityfolkfestival.com or find Johnson City Folk Festival on Facebook.