Should flood-prone Water Works Park be a concert venue?
It was pretty much a perfect Saturday night. More than 7,000 music fans were gathered to watch Old Crow Medicine Show, Brandi Carlile, Lucius and others perform at the Hinterland Music Festival.
It just wasn't the night concert promoters expected. They had invited fans from nearly every state and several foreign countries to flock to Water Works Park, the sprawling 1,500-acre park just off downtown Des Moines. But just days before the festival, they were forced to relocate the event to St. Charles, half an hour south of the capital city.
Hinterland became the second music festival of the year that was unable to use the park because it had flooded. In late June, the River Bank Bash was set to host Eric Church, Travis Tritt and others at the park. Organizers scrambled to find a new location and ultimately canceled the festival. One advocate for improvements to the park said the cancellations have created perceptions that it's not a dependable venue.
And at least one concert promoter said he has reservations about booking events there.
"It's unfortunate that the Water Works thing happened, but with what the weather is becoming here with floods every two years, it makes it a little scarier for someone like myself to do a show there," Hinterland organizer Sam Summers said. "Just the week before, things were looking great. I would have been shocked if someone told me we would have to move. Festivals can't really do that. I know we did, but it was very taxing on my employees."
More on what happened at Hinterland:
Despite the behind-the-scenes wranglings, for those on site at the Avenue of the Saints Amphitheater in St. Charles, it felt like the festival was always meant to be there. Singer-songwriter Carlile said she would buy a ticket to return if she isn't asked back next year, and Ketch Secor, singer for the headlining Americana band Old Crow Medicine Show, was enthusiastic in his praise for the new space.
"I'm so glad they moved this thing out of the city and into the cornfields of central Iowa," Secor told the crowd Saturday night.
The Des Moines band The Envy Corps had the shortest commute of any of the festival acts. Guitarist Brandon Darner said after the festival that the band's members didn't have any issues with the festival relocating from Des Moines to St. Charles.
"I think Sam made a really smart decision. He was thinking of safety," Darner said. "We were happy to play wherever it was going to be."
Park master plan calls for permanent stage
Summers said Water Works Park was the first and only location he considered for Hinterland. But after the success of Hinterland in St Charles, he's considering hosting more concerts there and plans to announce soon when and where Hinterland will be held in 2016.
Ted Corrigan, director of Water Distribution for Des Moines Water Works, said he doesn't recall a year where the park has lost two big events like it has in 2015.
If promoters putting on Hinterland-level events get nervous about using Water Works Park, it could make it difficult to draw in big events.
"I think perception is going to be a big part of the challenge," Corrigan said. "When you look at the calendar for the entire year, the number of weekends that we would be unable to host an event is pretty small. Maybe three or four out of the whole calendar. It just happened to hit very unfavorably during two events and does create the perception that events here get canceled."
Water Works Park was once regularly home to festivals like Lazerfest, Big Country Bash and Summer Jam. Lazerfest has moved on to other locations, while Big Country Bash and Summer Jam ended in 2011. Advocates for park restorations want to bring similar events back.
There are other spots around central Iowa that can hold similarly sized festivals, but all have pluses and minuses. Western Gateway Park, home to 80/35, requires street closures. Lazerfest has been held at the Indianola Balloon Grounds and Central Iowa Expo in Boone, but both require longer drives for Des Moines metro attendees. Lazerfest fans would often be backed up to Highway 65 Indianola. The Ankeny Airfield once hosted festivals like Dotfest and the Lazer Luau, but it no longer holds concerts.
Des Moines Water Works and the Des Moines Water Works Park Foundation worked to develop and implement a master plan that calls for more concerts and infrastructure like a permanent stage so that a promoter like Summers wouldn't have to move massive gear on semis over wet ground.
Corrigan thinks if setting up a temporary stage hadn't been an issue, the grounds might have been fine for Hinterland in time for the festival's start on July 11.
"One of the big challenges for them is they needed to get the stage moved in on Wednesday." Corrigan said. "By Friday the ground might still have been wet, but if they didn't have to bring in semi loads of equipment, that might have helped."
St. Charles working to draw more acts
Despite the setback this year, Corrigan thinks the enormous concert space available at Water Works, with space for parking and camping close to downtown, will help in the long run.
"There are a lot of points in our favor, but there is a risk," Corrigan said. "I'm not sure how we overcome that. Maybe time. A couple summers without a flood would help."
The master plan will take several years to implement.
"The good news is there is a master plan," said Kathryn Dickel, a member of the Park Foundation's board of directors. "Things are in the works that will make Water Works a more reliable concert venue for promoters and fans, but that doesn't happen overnight."
If there's a winner in all this, it's the Avenue of the Saints Amphitheater. It's been operating in St. Charles for three years, but before Hinterland, its biggest event drew 4,000 over a weekend in 2013 during the Heroes and Saints Rock N Country Bash, compared to 14,000 for Hinterland.
The amphitheater there is formed in a large, natural bowl that allowed for a good view of the stage from almost everywhere. A large tree midway up the amphitheater's south hill provided some shade on the sunny day, prompting #Hintertree photos on Instagram and Twitter. There were some crags in the ground, but overall the space filled most of Hinterland's needs.
Renatta Bolen, who manages the amphitheater, said work has already begun on a permanent stage for the amphitheater, with the hopes of drawing more acts to St. Charles.
"It for sure opened doors for us," Bolen said. "Hinterland let a lot of people know we exist and are not that far from Des Moines."