Most traces of the 2016 Bayou Boogaloo had disappeared from the banks of Bayou St. John by Tuesday, less than 48 hours after guitarist Anders Osborne — a resident of Mid-City, like Boogaloo founder Jared Zeller — had closed out the three-day free festival.
Overall, the 11th annual Boogaloo was a success, Zeller said, despite a “scandal” over a fence and the theft of several thousand dollars in bar proceeds.
Approximately 38,000 people attended the festival between Friday and Sunday, Zeller said. That total was on par with 2014, the biggest year in the festival’s history.
Attendance estimates are based on alcohol sales. Those sales were strong, Zeller said, which made the closing night theft from one of the festival’s bars especially frustrating.
On Sunday night, as Boogaloo’s cordoned-off VIP bar area was closing down, someone stole about $6,000 in cash. This was the first year the festival’s VIP bar accepted cash, and “we didn’t have a good system in place” to collect it, Zeller said. “It sucks, but we’ll get through it.”
The 2016 Bayou Boogaloo got through another controversy even before it started.
Four days before the festival opened, crews began erecting a chain-link fence alongside Bayou St. John. Opponents immediately voiced objections over social media, sometimes strenuously. City Councilwoman Susan Guidry weighed in to say that the city had not approved the fence, and she called for its removal.
By Wednesday, the fence had come down.
Installing the fence earlier than planned because of predictions of heavy rain later in the week fueled the controversy, Zeller said. “That gave people time to react.”
He wasn’t completely surprised by the outcry from “some of the most engaged neighbors in the city. They’re very vocal about everything that happens. That’s why I live here,” he said.
“I expected some criticism, but I didn’t expect it to be so overwhelming.”
He plans to revisit the notion of erecting a barrier on the bayou’s river side next year. The festival has for years cordoned off the bayou’s lake side with barricades, which Zeller believes people find less objectionable than chain-link fences.
The festival’s 2016 music roster, by contrast, received generally high marks.
Zeller’s nonprofit Mothership Foundation spent about $80,000 on music this year, the most ever. That included a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Boogaloo booked more popular, and therefore more expensive, acts than usual, such as reggae legends the Wailers and the Lowrider Band, whose ranks include several founding members of the Latin funk band War. The Wailers played to what Zeller believes was the largest opening-night crowd in the festival’s history.
“It was fun to have the whole audience singing along to the Wailers on Friday and the Lowrider Band on Saturday,” he said.
A successful Bayou Boogaloo was needed to make up for the steep losses suffered by another Mothership Foundation festival earlier this spring.
On March 18-20, the foundation produced the inaugural Festival Bonfouca in Slidell’s Heritage Park. The ticketed event, staged alongside Bayou Bonfouca, featured Marcia Ball, Sonny Landreth, Big Freedia, the Honey Island Swamp Band and other regional favorites.
But the weekend was marred by heavy flooding across the north shore, rain and unseasonably cool temperatures. The festival lost about $100,000, Zeller said. “It was very humbling. That’s a lot of money for an organization our size. We got crushed,” he said.
Whether Festival Bonfouca will return in 2017 is undecided. Zeller and his team are considering several options, including possibly moving the event to another time of year.
In the coming days and weeks, they’ll also reassess Bayou Boogaloo. As the festival grows, so does its effect on its host neighborhood.
“The reality is we put a lot of large equipment out there, and there is some wear and tear” along the bayou, Zeller said. “We work really hard to try to mitigate, as much as we can, the impact. We’re proud of what we do. We try to go the extra mile to show neighbors that we give a damn.”
Those efforts include a free shuttle service from parking areas at the American Can Co. complex and the Deutsches Haus, placing abundant no-parking signage along nearby neutral grounds and the bayou, and encouraging attendees to ride bicycles to the festival.
The festival has planted live oaks along the bayou. Zeller also plans to launch an anti-litter initiative focused on Bayou St. John, which has seen an overall uptick in recreational use in recent years.
The city does not charge a fee for Bayou Boogaloo and other events to use the land along the bayou, but that may change.
Rather than pay a fee into the city’s general fund, Zeller would prefer to pay directly for specific infrastructure improvements to the site, such as installing permanent trash cans or improving electrical service.
At some point, Bayou Boogaloo may start charging admission as a way to control growth and guarantee a revenue stream.
The 2016 festival cost about $450,000 to produce, Zeller said. Without charging admission, those costs must be recouped via beverage sales, vendor fees and sponsorships.
“There are a bunch of things to think about when we look at the success of the festival,” he said.