Firefly continues to shine brightly

While noting that attendance for the event was not released this year by the promoters, Lt. Kevin Kober said an educated guess using past crowd size as a gauge would be around 30,000 of those camping in the various campgrounds and around 80,000 in the festival area during active hours. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — City of Dover and Kent County officials agree the Firefly Music Festival remains a heavy hitter when it comes to tourism and revenue for central Delaware by attracting major musical acts such as Paul McCartney, Twenty One Pilots, Eminem and others each summer.

City staff, police, emergency workers, fire personnel and others recently lauded the coordination among the various agencies at this year’s Firefly Music Festival, which took place June 14-17 at The Woodlands of Dover International Speedway.

This year’s festival was marred by the death of a 20-year-old woman attendee, the first fatality in Firefly’s seven-year history. The cause of her death has yet to be released.

Lt. Kevin Kober, commander of Dover Police Department’s Special Enforcement Unit, would not comment on the woman’s death at a Dover City Council Meeting of the Whole on Tuesday because the department is still awaiting toxicology reports.

Dover police said at the time of the incident that no foul play was suspected.

Lt. Kober said that year-round coordination into the event allows it to operate as smoothly as possible each year.

“This was our seventh year, so we have it down pretty well,” Lt. Kober said. “What our initial plan right now for next year is it is all going to be relatively the same unless there’s a change by (the Delaware Department of Transportation) or by the promoters.

“As of now, it’s going to be pretty much status quo because of the success we’ve had.”

Next year’s Firefly Music Festival will take place June 21-23 under a new agreement with entertainment giant AEG Presents.

The band Foster the People performs on the main stage at this year’s Firefly Music Festival in Dover. (Delaware State News file photo/Matt Urban)

AEG Presents, already a majority holder in Firefly, has acquired the remaining ownership shares of the festival.

As part of the acquisition of shares formerly held by Red Frog Events, a Chicago-based event company, AEG Presents will also take over the promotion and production of the festival.

Dover City Planner Dave Hugg is concerned about having a new promoter of Firefly next year.

“Communication and planning for this event occurs throughout the year,” Mr. Hugg said. “With the 2018 event, the Fire Marshal’s office also utilized a mobile data collection method developed with the city’s GIS (Geographic Information System) staff.

“Communication at various levels will be especially important in the coming year with the transition in event ownership.”

Mr. Hugg added, “This Department of Planning and Inspections enjoys great communication with both Dover International Speedway and Red Frog Entertainment in regards to the planning and execution of the event; and we are confident that we will continue this positive relationship.”

Firefly’s impact on Dover

When the Firefly Music Festival comes to town each summer the population of Dover more than triples in size, much like it used to in the heyday of NASCAR, when Dover International Speedway would attract crowds of nearly 140,000 for its two Cup Series races each year.

It also means the start of a frenzied week for city officials and first responders. There were 33 police departments and fire companies involved in June’s festival.

This year’s event brought in $4,886 to the city of Dover in licenses and permits. The event took up 247 working hours among city staff, including 241 hours by the Fire Marshal’s office, headed by Fire Marshal Jason Osika.

Lt. Kober said that monitoring all the activity in the parking lots, camping areas and festival grounds can be a daunting challenge, though Dover Police does receive help from the Delaware State Police and other agencies throughout the state.

“The Dover Police Department’s mission statement during this event was to secure and deploy the law enforcement resources necessary to protect and serve the interest of the citizens and city of Dover, while preserving the peace and ensuring that pedestrian and vehicular traffic flow in an orderly and systematic manner during the six days involving the Firefly Music Festival Weekend,” Lt. Kober said.

Event security stands guard in front of the Backyard stage at the Firefly Music Festival.

While noting that attendance for the event was not released this year by the promoters, Lt. Kober said an educated guess using past crowd size as a gauge would be around 30,000 of those camping in the various campgrounds and around 80,000 in the festival area during active hours.

The Joint Command Center/Dover Police Department received 120 complaints related to the Firefly events from Wednesday, June 13 at 8:30 a.m. until Monday, June 18 at 12:30 a.m.

The most popular complaint came about thefts, of which there were 31.

However, Lt. Kober noted that there were 187 victims of cell phone thefts and wallet/purse thefts. Due to the extremely high volume, reports were grouped by time and location.

There were also a dozen complaints each for disorderly conduct and trespassing, as well as several major drug-dealing arrests.

There were 3,482 hours at Firefly managed by Dover Police (627 hours municipal agencies) and 3,275 hours managed by the Delaware State Police.

“Considering the size of the event, from the Dover Police public safety standpoint, the 2018 Firefly Music Festival did not have any major issues,” said Lt. Kober. “The communication and understanding of everyone’s role during this festival has improved every year and as a result, the overall day-to-day operations and safety of the event has improved.”

Firefly safety

Dover International Speedway’s Director of Public Safety and Track Operations Jim Hostfelt notes Firefly’s campgrounds become one of Delaware’s biggest cities when the music festival starts. Because of this, the need for medical, operational and law enforcement support becomes enormous.

“Dover’s population is about 38,000, but when Firefly is here, we more than triple that,” he said.

The 800 acres, 10 stages and 161 different musical acts this June kept Mr. Hosfelt and his staff busy this year.

In a report he gave to Kent County Levy Court (on which he serves as the Second District commissioner) in early August, Mr. Hosfelt noted that the speedway tallied a total of 1,819 “incidents” reported during the Firefly weekend. The incidents were broken up as follows:

• Fire/EMS: 1,256

• Site operations: 152

• Law enforcement: 137

• Facility maintenance: 95

• Security: 73

• Miscellaneous: 106

“Our fire and EMS folks received about 65 percent of the complaints — they are, by far, the busiest people there,” said Mr. Hosfelt. “You can see by the looks on their faces at the end of the festival that they’re all worn out. They do a great job.”

Despite precautions, in some instances the large safety personnel presence can only do so much, said Mr. Hosfelt – noting the death of the 20-year-old woman attendee in June.

“While we can make sure they’re safe coming into the festival, and we do everything we can, when they are in their tent, it’s the same as being inside their home, what they do is their business,” he said. “We had an unfortunate incident with the death of a young lady. We’re still waiting on the toxicology reports to come back on that investigation.”

The speedway does go out of its way to plan for the worst though, notes Mr. Hosfelt. Due to “terrorism” concerns that could include an active shooter, the security protocols are extensive.

Security guard Richard Testa uses a magnetic wand at the Back of the House gate at the Firefly Music Festival. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“We’re very proud of the anti-terrorism measures we’ve taken,” he added. “Every vehicle that went into the campground was searched. The occupants are removed, they are searched and then the vehicles are searched by two- or three-man teams.

“We’re looking mostly for large amounts of drugs, guns, knives, bombs or anything of that nature. Not only are the vehicles searched, the Delaware State Police K9 teams go through the cars as well. Also, at the gates we have Magnetometers — like the TSA uses — to look for weapons.”

Mr. Hosfelt also notes that an extensive security camera array helps his team keep track of activity around the festival and strategic road closures and heavy vehicle blockages help prevent a potential attack with a vehicle.

“We set up DelDOT’s heavy equipment, like plows, that they’re not using around the entryways — we’ve been very fortunate to partner with DelDOT like this,” he said.

“We do this because if someone was trying to use a vehicle to run people down, we can slow them down.

“Most of the roads are closed back there anyway, making vehicles few and far between to begin with.”

DelDOT reported that they billed the speedway for just under 1,500 hours for their part in supporting the operation.

“The manpower and equipment costs for this event are reimbursed to DelDOT,” said DelDOT spokesman Charles “C.R.” McLeod.

“Equipment like light plants, message boards, street sweeper and etc. charges totaled about $17,000. The total bill was just around $49,500.”

DelDOT’s Transportation Management Program operations manager Gene Donaldson said the agency has worked diligently for several years to improve their support role for the festival.

“Because all the roads fall under our responsibility, we are involved with small to large events — Firefly being one of the large ones,” he said. “We had a regular program that we’ve done for years with Dover Speedway in managing the NASCAR races so we integrated the planning for Firefly into that same process.”

Through the years of collaboration, the agency and speedway have developed a system that works well with the event, he says.

“The event went really smoothly this year. There were no major incidents for us,” said Mr. Donaldson. “On the first day there was an accident right away in the morning at a critical intersection, but we were able to handle it really quickly.”

Planning for next year’s Firefly Music Festival begins in September, says Mr. Hosfelt.

Benefits of festival

Although a costly and labor-intensive endeavor, Firefly Music Festival is thought to add much more money to the local economy than it drains.

“Although, there are costs involved with the festival, the positive economic impact on the area way outweighs the negative,” said Kent County Tourism President Wendie Vestfall.

“The festival has had a huge impact on not only Kent County, but Delaware in general. The festival has really raised the awareness of Delaware and Dover as its capital.

“It has specifically brought in a large millennial demographic that had never even considered visiting the area or passed through on their way to the beach with their family before.”

Pointing to a 2014 University of Delaware study, Ms. Vestfall said the festival contributed more than $68 million to the regional economy that year. It also added $9.9 million to the state, local and federal coffers in taxes.

Festival goers lift their arms and their cell phones for Joey Purp at the Backyard stage at Firefly Music Festival at the Woodlands of Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“Job creation alone is a big plus when it comes to Firefly,” said Ms. Vestfall. “It takes over a month to construct the festival grounds at the Woodlands. They hire local laborers to construct stages and fencing, service the food and beverage stands and do cleanup.

“The 2014 study reported that in addition to the money that Firefly helps inject directly into the economy, the 579 full-time-equivalent jobs it helped create before, during and after the event came with total additional wage and salary payments of more than $23 million.”

The festival even manages to be a boon to local philanthropic groups, said Ms. Vestfall.

“Local charities like Code Purple (a sub-freezing homeless shelter program) have benefited from Firefly after the fact,” she said. “Many local groups do clean-up of the festival area and are allowed to keep what they collect like tents, sleeping bags and etc. These are things that they normally have to rely on locals to buy and donate.”

The tourism office itself attempts to capitalize on a captive audience as well when the festival comes to town.

“It’s allowed us the opportunity to educate and showcase to 90,000-plus people the other great offerings Kent County has,” said Ms. Vestfall. “Our mobile visitor center

‘The Villager’ was on-site this past festival and we talked to many people about Bombay Hook and the Air Mobility Museum, great locally owned restaurants like the Grey Fox or Restaurant 55 and the many boutique shopping experiences in downtown Dover, Smyrna and Milford.

“We specifically saw parents who were dropping their children off for the festival asking us for suggestions on other things they could do to occupy their time while their kids were at the show. Those folks are here and looking for opportunities to explore our area and, most importantly, spend their money.”

 

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