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An Upper and Downer of a Weekend at Beech, ‘Mixed Emotions’ Revolve Around Festival of Gnarnia

By Jesse Wood

Michelle Elvira of Long Island, N.Y. hoola hoops in the grassy field across from the Beech Mountain Chamber of Commerce. Photo by Jesse Wood

Aug. 13, 2012. Atop Beech Mountain Resort this weekend during Festival of Gnarnia, more than 150 people were arrested and more than 300 citations for alcohol and drugs were issued, according to local law enforcement officials.

Though while the buzz ended for those select festival attendees, thousands of more people enjoyed the 100-plus bands and sideshow acts without going to jail or receiving tickets.

Some people – like Amy Morrison of the Beech Mountain Tourism Development Authority – feel that the small percentage of those busted gave the inaugural festival a bad reputation and that overall, the pros outweighed the cons. She estimated that 6,000 to 7,000 people attended the festival, and using that estimation and figures from law enforcement agencies, one to two percent of the festival goers were arrested – as opposed to the 10-percent rumor circulating around Facebook and other online forums.

“Overall, I think it was really exciting to have that many people on the ski resort at za time when we would actually have no one,” Morrison said.

In the aftermath of the festival, the homes and businesses are “still standing,” as one local merchant put it, and the mountain is clean from trash and litter, which initially concerned some of the locals.

While the economic impact of the festival won’t be known until September, the local merchants and lodging rental agencies noticed the financial benefits of the festival immediately.

Local businesses such as Fred’s General Mercantile, which experienced its best summer weekend ever, couldn’t keep shelves stocked fast enough, and according to Morrison, only three rental houses were not booked during the weekend – which is unheard of for this time of year.

Still, the festival was both an upper and a downer based on what all transpired on the mountain from last Thursday to Sunday.

“You know, we still have mixed emotions,” Fred Pfohl, owner of Fred’s General Mercantile, said. “Business is wonderful, [but] I hate to see people get themselves in trouble with drugs. From a businessman’s standpoint, it was worth it to us.”

Pfohl said that people are going to question whether to have this event again in a place like Beech Mountain, even though no property was damaged and no violence occurred on the mountain during those three days.

Speaking with him on Monday, he recounted what an older gentleman, who witnessed the “dreadlocks and see-through blouses,” told him over the weekend: “Everyone I ran into was real nice, real respectful and said they enjoyed coming here to such a beautiful place. He said, ‘It gave me a little more faith in next generation coming up.’”

As for the law enforcement agencies, it was quite a haul netting copious amounts of MDMA, LSD, DMT, marijuana, a variety of pills, ketamine, psychedelic mushrooms, cocaine, bath-salts, large nitrous oxide tanks and possibly even some PCP.

The confiscation amounts are still being tallied, but Brad Putnam, assistant special agent in charge with N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement, said one man arrested had 290 dosage units of MDMA, 700 hits of either LSD or liquid MDMA and 63 grams of cocaine.

The ALE, which had 25 officers present at different times during the event, worked in cooperation with Beech Mountain, Boone and Banner Elk police departments, the State Highway Patrol and Avery and Watauga sheriff’s departments.

Katie Bange, owner of Festi-Cab, is from Missouri and lives on the road. She travels the festival circuit and offers transportation to those attending festivals. Photo by Jesse Wood

Putnam said that the agencies had been planning this sting for about one month and weren’t surprised with the results.

“We have experience working this type of venue, this type of event and we developed intelligence and information prior to the event on what would likely be transpiring as far as illegal and criminal drug activity,” Putnam said.

Law enforcement officials from various agencies went inside the festival undercover but a high majority of the arrests were made outside of the festival, which was held on Beech Mountain Resort and was leased by the production company Upstanding Entertainment.

“A lot of these occurred before people made it into the venue,” Putnam said. “We were trying to defuse situations before they became problems.”

On Facebook and other online forums regarding the busts at Gnarnia, festival-goers were irate that the police officers were allegedly wearing infrared goggles and entering camp-site tents on private property without probable cause, but officials, such as Putnam and Beech Mountain Police Department Captain Jerry Sturbyfill denied these claims.

Not only did the officers fill up their station’s evidence rooms, but they also filled up the local county jails. Watauga County’s jail, which holds 106 people, was filled to capacity, along with Avery County’s male’s cells, which currently holds 30 men.

ALE logged 108 arrests, 39 of which were felonies, and gave out 258 citations. Boone Police Chief Dana Crawford said his staff arrested five people and charged 8 felonies and 13 misdemeanors for the weekend. Sturbyfill with Beech Mountain Police Department estimated a total of 160 arrests with 300 charges in total for all law enforcement at the festival.

Not all of the local agencies had tallied the figures or didn’t respond as of press time, so an exact festival-weekend arrest figure is not yet known.

Suffice to say, there hasn’t been anything like this in a long time. Avery Sheriff Kevin Frye said there was a festival on Grandfather Mountain 25 to 30 years that was a “little bit like this.”

“But nothing in the last many, many years,” Frye said.

So, will there be a second Festival of Gnarnia on Beech?

When Morrison of the Beech Mountain TDA waxed about the economic benefits of the festival, she spoke as if this could the first and the last Festival of Gnarnia on Beech.

“If only for one time, it’s definitely been a nice boost,” she said.

As of press time, Beech Mountain Resort didn’t respond to phone calls, nor did a representative from Upstanding Entertainment respond to an email.

See more recent article dated Wednesday, Aug. 15, with trafficking arrests figures here: https://www.hcpress.com/news/beech-council-hears-best-worst-of-gnarnia-festival-including-festival-goer-found-in-newland-dumpster.html

See initial article about the busts – and the good times – at Festival of Gnarnia here: https://www.hcpress.com/news/festival-atop-beech-lsd-mushrooms-ecstasy-you-name-its-here-influx-of-people-good-for-business.html