Music festival gets tentative OK to return to Sonoma
Originally published by ELOÍSA RUANO GONZÁLEZ
SONOMA PRESS DEMOCRAT
January 14, 2015, 9:25 AM
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Bruce Cohn, longtime manager of The Doobie Brothers, is moving his beloved classic rock music festival back to downtown Sonoma, several blocks from where the event started more than two decades ago.
Cohn received on Wednesday night a preliminary green light from the city’s Community Services and Environment Commission to move the popular weekend concert event to the Field of Dreams park, northwest of the historic Plaza. However, Cohn and his event co-producers, Michael Coats and John Procaccini, must bring back a final plan to the nine-member board for review in June.
It was the last hurdle for organizers to overcome before they could proceed with plans to move the festival back to the quaint town of 11,000 residents, said Cohn, who launched 29 years ago a nonprofit in his namesake to give back to the county where he grew up. He started out with charity golf tournaments but switched over to rock concerts in the early 1990s. The first two concerts were held on a field at Sonoma Valley High School. Graham Nash and Nicolette Larson performed at that event, which made $500, he said.
“We’re going full circle, back to Sonoma,” said Cohn, who’s been holding the concerts ever since at B.R. Cohn Winery, which he founded in Glen Ellen in 1974.
The city’s venue off First Street West will offer more space and makes it more convenient for residents to attend, Cohn said. They won’t have to worry about taking a shuttle to the winery and climbing the hillside to watch the shows, he explained.
“When you’re 65, it’s not so nice,” Cohn said about the climb.
Besides being flat, he said the park also provides more space that could help boost attendance. The festival, which he’ll rename the “Sonoma Music Festival,” is scheduled for Oct. 2-4.
Now in its 29th year, the festival previously drew about 5,000 people each year over the two days. Cohn hopes to extend the concerts to three days and bring in about 3,500 a day.
“I’m really excited about the amount we can make for the charities if we sell out,” he said after Wednesday’s meeting. “That’s what it is about.”
The event has raised $6.5 million for more than 100 local and national veteran organizations and charities, including the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance, Redwood Empire Food Bank and Santa Rosa Memorial Trauma Center. Cohn said it also supported the Fisher House Foundation, a national organization that provides housing for veterans.
Coats said organizers plan to reduce the cost of tickets for local residents to make the event more accessible. However, they haven’t settled on a price, yet.
Cohn said they wanted to move the event because it became too expensive to hold the concerts at the Glen Ellen winery. It cost $100,000 each year to put in tables, chairs and other equipment on a hillside — money that he said can now go to charities.
“We had to build everything,” Cohn explained. “Plus, it’s a lot of wear and tear on the winery (vineyards).”
He added that the winery also lost money because the state required it to close the tasting room during the weekend event.
“That’s a big economic hit to the winery,” said Cohn, who last year passed the reins to his eldest son, Dan Cohn, who was named CEO of the winery.
The event is expected to boost business for local restaurants and shops, as well as bring in additional tax revenue, Sonoma City Manager Carol Giovanatto said. It’ll also bring more exposure to the city, she added.
“It’s internationally known in attendance,” she said. “It gets our name out there.”
However, traffic and noise was raised as a concern by the board on Wednesday, which spent an hour going over concert details and restrictions, including no cars allowed to park on First Street West. Coats said residents will be encouraged to walk or ride their bikes to the event.
The county will be working closely with the city and organizers to make sure the festival doesn’t create a problem, said Susan Gorin, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.
“(We) will be carefully working on noise and parking issues,” Gorin said in a phone interview.
She added, “I think the festival will be embraced by the residents.”
Sonoma Mayor David Cook agreed. He called the move a “big deal” for the city, saying it would fill a void after the popular Jazz Plus festival went away a few years ago. Cook said Cohn’s festival has drawn lots of local residents over the years, and they should expect to see more since concert-goers will no longer have to worry about driving to and from the shows.
“I worry about drinking and driving,” Cook said, adding that he liked the idea about riding a bike or walking to the concerts. “Moving the venue to Sonoma just enhances the festival for our locals.”
He and fellow council members gave their approval last week for the Sonoma Valley Field of Dreams Board to sublease the park to the festival, which previously brought in performers such as Journey, Peter Frampton, Willie Nelson, The Wallflowers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Cohn said he’s still working on the concert lineup. The Doobie Brothers, who have played at the event for 14 years, are expected to return this year. He said he’s also trying to bring in Ringo Starr.
Cohn plans to release more details next month when tickets are expected to go on sale.