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Town Staff Reflects on Festival of Gnarnia at Special Meeting, Applauds Beech Mountain Resort’s Cooperation

By Jesse Wood

Sept. 27, 2012. On Wednesday night, more than 50 residents of Beech Mountain attended a special town council meeting regarding the Festival of Gnarnia, which took place in August, and its effects on Beech Mountain and the surrounding communities in Avery County.

The meeting was specifically planned around the schedule of Alcohol and Law Enforcement Special Agent in Charge David Ashley to learn why the festival promoters chose Beech Mountain and why a small percentage of festivalgoers brought such a huge amount of drugs to a community that had never experienced anything quite like Festival of Gnarnia before.

However, Ashley didn’t attend because Gov. Bev Perdue ushered all N.C. ALE agents to continue the search of convicted murderer James Ladd who escaped from a prison farm in Halifax County (and as it happens was captured Thursday morning).

Having briefly spoken with Ashley recently, Mayor Rick Owen offered a few words in his place. Owen said that the ALE profiles music festivals across the state on the internet. Through online festival forums, blogs and Facebook posts, the ALE is able to predict what kind of activities will take place at any given festival.

One “red flag” of the Festival of Gnarnia was that the music lasted until 3 a.m. throughout the festival weekend, Owen said, reiterating Ashley’s comments.

“They want arts, music. After you get past a certain time of night [midnight], it’s a rave,” Owen said.

Both Police Chief Jay Hefner and Fire Chief Bob Pudney discussed the shortcomings, which couldn’t be exaggerated, of the festival promoter Bowie Van Ling whose lack of organization caused “grave concerns” for both officials and put the entire community at risk.

Hefner and Pudney began planning for the event on April 17 and in the months and days leading up to the event, Van Ling hardly procured any of the information requested by the two and didn’t attend barely any of the meetings with town staff.

“There was no planning from promoter’s perspective,” Pudney said, adding that he didn’t know who the security would be until two weeks before the festival. Also, the festival organizers had no communication handsets.

Pudney was told that licensed individuals from Jamcare Medical would take care of health emergencies. Pudney contacted officials with Jamcare Medical to request certifications on whoever would be working the festival to no avail.

When he finally found a Jamcare staff member at the festival, they had inadequate equipment.

“I said, ‘I need to see your equipment.’ ‘That’s it,’ he said.” Pudney recalled. “There was a [small table] that had some bandaids, bandages, bottles of saline and that’s it. I said, ‘Where’s your advanced life support, where’s defibrillators, blood pressure cup, backboard stretchers.’”

That person said, “We were told to respond and figure out what’s wrong with them. If they are on drugs, we take them to cool down. Anything else, we’ll call you.”

Pudney said that’s exactly what happened. Hefner added that he had been requesting for a meeting with festival security for months, but that didn’t happen until the day before the festival.

“And that lasted about three minutes. Basically shook the guys hand and said, ‘If you need help, let us know,” Hefner said.

By 3 a.m. on Saturday night, Hefner and Pudney were sweating at the thought of receiving of one more call. With ambulances and the fire department vehicles already “crisscrossing between the mountain,” Pudney said he was sending fire engines to handle overdose calls.

Even though the event is more than a month old, that situation still concerns them to this day.

The Beech Mountain Town Council meeting following the festival was packed with residents who blasted the law enforcement and the town for the “police state” that the mountain turned into on festival weekend.

“Some of you believe this was a good event. But you need to know all the facts,” Pudney said. “If you were on the mountain Saturday night and you or your loved one had a medical emergency … if you were in Newland and needed a paramedic, we didn’t have one available in Avery County to respond to your call. That concerns me gravely … Luckily there were no calls in Newland, Beech Mountain or Crossnore, Linville or Banner Elk.”

With 108 arrests and more than 258 charges just by the ALE, law enforcement, which included Beech Mountain, Boone and Banner Elk police departments and Avery and Watauga County sheriff’s departments, barely gave marijuana a second notice, officials said, focusing on the drug trafficking and harder drugs.

Applauding Beech Mountain Resort

Before the event started, Pudney asked for a meeting with Beech Mountain Resort General Manager Ryan Costin, who confirmed at that meeting with Pudney that his staff would control some of the indoor events at the festival. (Promoters leased the property from Beech Mountain Resort for the weekend.) No problems were reported where Beech Mountain Resort staff or those contracted by Beech Mountain Resort were stationed.  

 “I want to reassure you that the resort cooperated fully,” Pudney said.

Costin attended the special meeting Wednesday night and spoke at the end of the meeting.

“We don’t go into ventures that want to harm our business or this town, this community,” Costin said. “We want to let you know on our end, as we move forward and learn from our mistakes, that we make decisions off of making sure we are representing ourselves and our community in a fashion that should be [commendable].”

Other Notes

Mayor Rick Owen said that the festival cost the town an “absolute minimum” of $25,000 due to the law enforcement and emergency services. He added that the promoter gave a $5,000 deposit to the town and a $5,000 donation to the Beech Mountain Fire Department.  

After the town staff spoke, Owen opened the meeting to public comments.

One person mentioned that the Town of Beech Mountain received a “bad rap” and “bad press” from the media during and following Festival of Gnarnia. He said the Festival of Gnarnia had a Facebook page with 10,000 fans that will probably never visit Beech Mountain again.

He suggested that there should have been a public announcement saying that N.C. ALE and local law enforcement officers would be out in full force during Gnarnia.

“So don’t bring you drugs here. We don’t want that crap here,” he said. “I feel like if that would have happened, we wouldn’t have had all the trouble. Wouldn’t be taxing ourselves so much and probably wouldn’t have got bad press that will still be going on. We will never recoup from that.” 

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