After 40 years, citizens proclaiming moral and religious clarity scored a win against what they perceived as unholy vices set to descend upon Gonzales. While they couldn't stop Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnic in 1976, they indeed found a way to sink Float Fest and its hopes of using city parkland for a summertime fete.
In the end, it was the threat of a lawsuit from another religious entity, the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, that gave council an excuse to step back from the precipice and vote 5-0 to deflate plans to use J.B. Wells Park as the weekend pulpit for thousands of music and sun worshippers this July.
The vote also shows that council is wary of allowing anyone to rent the park while litigation is ongoing.
In the lead-up to the March 15 city council meeting that introduced Float Fest to Gonzales residents, various city religious denominations rose to denounce the event in online social media postings, citing drugs and lewd lyrics dropped by festival performers as reason for city leaders to deny the festival use of city property. Then — before Monday's special called council meeting to discuss those plans again — the calls for moral decency were suddenly replaced by fears of litigation from the Austin Presbyterians, who have sued the city to take away J.B. Wells Park, the issue being that the park isn't really being used as a “park” as outlined in the will of the actual J.B. Wells who gifted the city his land decades ago.
Council heard an hour's worth of public testimony on the matter, most of those in favor of what benefits the event could bring to town. Those speaking against stuck mainly to the rhetoric of wickedness and sin that music and dancing would bring.
Tourism Director Clint Hille was the first to speak, voicing support of Float Fest. Though he first had concerns, he was won over by the possible economic gains and tourism benefits that could be had from hosting 20,000 people in town over a weekend and the improvements promised by festival organizers for permanent river access.
“To me, the greatest longterm benefit is it will make our river usable for the future,” Hille said. “From a tourism aspect, I recommend it. It could lead to bigger things for Gonzales.”
Local businesswoman Connie Dolezal echoed comments she presented in the previous workshop, noting how downtown merchants needed an economic boost during usually sleepy summer months.
“If we let this go this year and do not have it, we won't get it again,” Dolezal said. “We need this out-of-town business to come in, especially on Saturdays.”
Another downtown businesswoman praised festival organizers for running a smooth event and pleaded with council to accept the festival and the improvements that it would bring to that stretch of the Guadalupe River.
“I pray you vote 'yes' and give Float Fest a chance,” said Sarah Tenberg.
Gonzales High School student Jasmine Zuniga called it beneficial.
“Why would we pass on an opportunity like this?” she asked.
Jerry Floyd spoke in favor, recalling how the city wrestled with the idea of hosting Willie's picnic 40 years ago and all of the havoc that naysayers prophesied it would bring. When it was all over, everything went back to normal, he said. He added that for years, studies conducted in town recommended utilizing the Guadalupe River to bring more tourism and thus more commerce into Gonzales. And all these years later, still nothing has been done.
“For me, it would be a step in the right direction,” he said.
Another Picnic survivor was in the crowd, his presence a testament to feasibility of city/festival cohabitation.
“I'm all for it,” said Buddy Brown, whose name was mysteriously placed on the speakers list without his knowledge. “I was at Willie's picnic and I didn't see anyone get killed....Just give it a shot.”
“My business suffers in the summer. We need something to bring people to this community,” said Amy Cernocek, another downtown merchant. “We have to bring people to this town or we will lose.”
Eight others spoke in favor of allowing the event to happen as proposed. Six residents rose in opposition or with deep reservations.
Billy Bob Low, who serves on the J.B. Wells advisory board, said that he could care less what kind of music is presented at the park. His concern, as well as those echoed by half of his board, was the pending lawsuit and doing anything that would tilt the evidence in favor of the Presbyterians who are looking to take away the park. He also voiced concern for the wildlife on the park's “mound” and the fate of the other events that have already booked that weekend.
Ex-recording artist Viola Strother spoke of the evil that would follow the event, with its lewd music and attendees of a questionable nature. She said that “evil is coming” and the event would leave a spiritual battle inside of the people that attend Float Fest.
“They are a vehicle [for evil],” she said. “They can't clean up what they can't see what they have left [behind]. It will do spiritual damage.”
“I hope you don't have any tomatoes, for I am speaking against,” said Ann Covert. She said that County Judge Pat Davis has already given his blessing for the event to be held elsewhere in Gonzales County and that the J.B. Wells lawsuit should drive their decision to deny.
Meanwhile, Beverly Pirkle asked if it was right for Gonzales to be a “guinea pig.” She also asked if the Gonzales Police Department would be allowed to use drug-sniffing dogs to search festival-goers as they entered the grounds.
“I love to promote this city, but this isn't the way to do it,” she said. “I am opposed to Float Fest within the city limits, not opposed to it elsewhere on the Guadalupe River.”
At the conclusion of the open hearing, council was allowed to wade into the discussion. Mayor Connie Kacir stated that the proposal was still a “working draft” that they had in front of them.
Councilman Tommy Schurig began by waving the actual $16 million J.B. Wells lawsuit in front of him, stating that as his main concern. He said that he was “scared to death” of the suit, even though his name wasn't listed as a defendant.
“If we go ahead with this, [the Presbyterians] will be out there watching this,” Schurig said.
Councilman Dan Blakemore said that the festival organizers already had county approval to host the event elsewhere in the county, and the city council was only negotiating the use of city parks, not the death of Float Fest, and said the benefits to Gonzales would be the same if it were held at J.B. Wells or elsewhere. He'd have the same concerns if George Strait were putting on a show there, he said, the damage being the same regardless of performers.
“The municipality is making a decision on what will happen in the city parks, not about [the continuation] of Float Fest,” Blakemore said.
“The J.B. Wells issue is huge,” said Councilman Bobby O'Neal.
“My name is on the lawsuit, and it has kept me up at night lately,” said Councilman Gary Schroeder. He said that the city attorney had not given him the confidence that hosting the festival wouldn't affect the lawsuit.
“I want Float Fest,” Schroeder said. “I just don't feel comfortable giving the city's blessing right now.”
Kacir said that J.B. Wells was looking down from heaven and is proud of what he sees in his park.
Council then broke to deliberate in a closed session. After 15 minutes, they returned and heard remarks from Float Fest head Marcus Federman. He said that although he hasn't read the entirety of the lawsuit, every park in America has events, many similar in scope to this, and most people would agree that a park is where people have events. He even offered to help financially with the lawsuit, if asked.
“I will be a good partner should that day ever come,” Federman said.
He closed by stating that he too is a man of faith and wanted his opponents to hear this. He compared his festival and the music he offers to a Christian businessperson who sells chicken tenders and queso in their restaurant: it may not be good for you, but people want it, so who are you to judge?
As Kacir went to call for a motion, the city attorney corrected the initial statement by her, saying that there was no permit to approve or deny, only as what pertains to use of city property.
Blakemore made a motion — without prejudice to Float Fest, he said — that they should conclude without offering any city property for use by Federman for his event. He hoped that organizers would respect where he was coming from.
“[The Presbyterians] don't think that a youth rodeo is reasonable [at J.B. Wells],” he said. “I think we should move on and not continue the negotiations.”
With that, council voted unanimously to end negotiations with Federman, and thus, scuttling any plans that Float Fest would be held in the city of Gonzales.
Afterwards, Mayor Kacir admitted that the fear of the J.B. Wells lawsuit will guide them when it comes to voting to allow future events at the park. With that statement, events like the youth rodeos, gun shows, and the October “Sisters on the Fly” camping event could come under more scrutiny from council for fear of agitating the Presbyterians.