Name change required for Pepfest Country Music Festival planned in September in Willmar

·8 min read


— After event organizers have already spent approximately $77,000 marketing and advertising the Pepfest Country Music Festival, the name has to change, according to the lease agreement approved Monday by the Willmar City Council.

The council approved the lease agreement for the country music festival at Robbins Island in a split 6-2 vote. Council members Rick Fagerlie, Julie Asmus, Tom Butterfield, Michael O'Brien, Audrey Nelsen and Andrew Plowman voted in favor of the lease agreement; Justin Ask and Vickie Davis voted no.

While there are no legal issues with the name Pepfest, according to City Attorney Robert Scott, he and city staff advised that the name be changed so the festival would not appear to be promoting a mayoral candidate.

The organizer of the event is Steve Peppin, who announced his candidacy for mayor after receiving the council's permission on May 16 to move forward with city staff in drafting a lease agreement for the festival, which will take place Saturday, Sept. 10.

"To be clear, this is not a legal matter," Scott said, noting the council could allow the event to move forward with the name Pepfest, as Peppin is requesting, but the lease agreement as drafted would have to be amended.

"Regardless of intent, I think there is a name recognition benefit to having an event that has your name or a component of your name in it ... and when you're a candidate for a local office, that can have the effect of increasing your notoriety and name recognition, which can absolutely be impactful in a race," Scott continued. "The council will not be doing anything illegal if the council decides to allow the name to go forward as originally proposed."

He explained that the only legal consideration would be giving another candidate equal time if they made a request similar to Peppin's.

Stating that he has given his word that he will not campaign for mayor until after the event, Peppin told the council, "This is my dream and this is about giving this community something special, a lot bigger than any mayor could ever give. The mayor thing is just a title, something that I do not need. Pepfest is a brand that started in 2012."

He explained that his brand — Pep — stands for "people engaging people." It is a strong brand and strong in the community, he added.

Mayor Marv Calvin agreed that Peppin has a strong brand and Peppin does good things for the community, but noted that things change when someone becomes the mayor of said community.

"If you guys are asking me to shut down a brand — shut down a business that I started a long, long time ago — if I do that, I might as well start all over again, might as well cancel what my team and I did together and look at it next year," Peppin continued. "If that's the case, what if I am mayor next year. Can I do that?"

Scott explained that would be an issue, because it is against state statute for a mayor or council member to speak to or vote for things that may benefit them financially. It should be noted that the mayor of Willmar is not a voting member of the council and votes only if there is a need to break a tie, according to the Willmar city charter.

In explaining his discomfort with forcing a name change, Plowman said, "... The reason it's a gray area for me is because it's not actually a full name. It's kind of a play on words. ... I feel as though it could possibly fall into a gray area. I agree 110% with the fact that this should not be at all a political event."

He also questioned how detrimental it might be to change the name if it's already being advertised, as well as what kind of message it sends to future promoters that are looking to host events in Willmar.

"I have appreciation for the brand — your business is Pep's, which was your business before you put in for office," Asmus said, noting things changed for her when Peppin filed to run for mayor and that she did not think a name change would change the success of the event.

"(People) are going to the event because of the music and the venue, and it's going to be great. I think it's great to bring something like that to town."

The lease agreement is with Peppin's business Studio 38, and the city attorney helped draft the lease after city staff and Peppin negotiated the terms, according to Parks and Recreation Director Rob Baumgarn.

The 11-page lease agreement calls for the closure of Robbins Island to the general public for the festival, including parking lots, shelters, buildings and boat launches.

Studio 38 will pay a $12,000 fee to the city to cover the hard costs to the city for the use of Willmar Public Works staff, the Police Department and the Fire Department. If the costs associated with those entities is less than $12,000, Studio 38 will be refunded the difference. If the costs are more than $12,000, that will be taken out of the $10,000 refundable damage deposit required by the lease.

Any repairs needed at Robbins Island as a result of the festival will also be taken out of the damage deposit.

The city will also receive $1 per ticket of the first 5,000 tickets sold as the rental fee for Robbins Island, and Studio 38 will pay $500 for the rental of all the park shelters for the day.

Studio 38 will be responsible for paying for all electricity used for the event, and will have until noon the next day to clean up the park by removing the fencing, portable toilets, and other equipment used for the event.

Council members were concerned about the precedent being set by allowing Robbins Island to be closed for a whole day for a private event.

"Precedent. I just want to throw this situation out," Councilor Ask said, noting he recently rented a shelter at Robbins Island for a birthday party for his daughters, who invited 15 guests.

"Now I understand that next summer, I can shut the entire island down for a two-day birthday party for my daughters, pay $500 for the shelters' closure, and charge each of the 15 guests $1 per ticket, giving the city $515. I don't need the Police Department or Parks and Rec to do anything. That would be the precedent we're setting?"

He did not think the fee being charged for the day was adequate to shut down a busy city park, inconveniencing the taxpayers that pay for it.

Baumgarn said that the park would be closed to the public only Saturday, Sept. 10, and the lease agreement goes through noon Sunday, Sept. 11, to allow for cleanup after the event.

When Councilor O'Brien asked if there are other events that have closed down the entire park, Baumgarn noted Rockin' Robbins "pretty much" shuts down the entire park due to taking up all the parking spaces available, but the free concert does not block off any part of the park.

Walks and runs that take place shut down the park for the duration of the walk and run, and there is a $300 permit fee for those events.

Baumgarn said that the $1 per ticket fee is typically the standard for events such as this festival.

Ask offered an amendment to charge a flat fee of $10,000 for the day, which would include the $500 for closure of the shelters at the park. His amendment also included charging the fee for the cost of city staffing for the event, the $1 per ticket fee for the first 5,000 tickets sold, and the $10,000 damage deposit.

Plowman stated that these types of events are what the council wants to bring to the city, and this is an excellent opportunity to create policy and give the city a launch point for then tweaking the policy, if needed, after the event.

He said he thought it was a great thing for entrepreneurs wanting to bring in private, for-profit events that are successful in many communities and reminded the council that the event may be for-profit, but it could create a huge loss for the organizers if it is a "flop."

"So, therein comes the risk," Plowman said, noting there is a fine line between what is a reasonable rate to charge and what is unreasonable. "We do want private entities, we do want private entrepreneurship, we do want enterprise, we do want events that people are willing to put their money on the line and they could do great. There is that inherent risk that they could not do so great."

Nelsen also spoke against the amendment, noting city staff negotiated the lease agreement and it is a good place to start in crafting future policy for such events.

Asmus noted that this would not be the first time the city has shut down public amenities for events, referring to the Sonshine Music Festival that took place for many years at the Civic Center. The organizers were not charged $10,000 for that event, but were required to pay the cost to rent the Civic Center and pay the cost of city staffing for the event.

The amendment to the lease agreement failed in a 5-3 vote, with Ask, Fagerlie, and O'Brien voting in favor and Davis, Plowman, Nelsen, Asmus and Butterfield voting against.