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Napa girds for rock-n-roll mania

Art director of BottleRock, Dharma Barsotti, second from the right, and his crew worked Monday to erect the large guitar sculptures that will decorate the Napa Valley Expo for the upcoming music festival May 9-12.

CONNER JAY / The Press Democrat
Published: Monday, April 29, 2013 at 5:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 3, 2013 at 11:39 a.m.

NAPA - BottleRock, the biggest thing to hit Napa since Prohibition ended, uncorks next week with the arrival of some of music's biggest headliners and an expected horde of 35,000 fans.

Soon the world will know whether the city of 78,000 was prepared for the onslaught. That Napa is hosting the five-day music festival at all still seems a bit unreal, like someone's idea of a funny joke after they've spent too much time at one of the wine bars that have proliferated downtown.

Napa is where the local radio station uses the head-banging tag-line of "sauvignon rock" and where the busiest after-hours joint on most nights is the city's central jail.

That all could change next Wednesday when bands including the national hip-hop sensations Macklemore & Ryan Lewis take center stage at the Napa Valley Expo -- home of a "state of the art Bingo Emporium" -- and blast the grape skins off of Wine Country. The event includes more than 60 bands, many, like the Grammy Award-winning Black Keys or the Kings of Leon, that could pack an arena.

The rock festival, which costs as much as $600 for multi-day passes, promises a major boost to the local economy. But the buzz also includes fears that BottleRock could turn into a massive bottleneck and create unwanted problems with noise, loitering and public safety.

"A lot of people around here are unaware how big this is going to be. There's never been anything this large in Napa before," said Wayne Monger, train master of the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society.

He expressed the desire of many when he said he hopes BottleRock establishes Napa as the next Austin, home of the South by Southwest festival. But just in case things don't go so well next week, the railroad society, which has had headquarters at the expo since 1971, is bolting the doors while the music plays on.

"It's not so much of a family crowd," Monger said of BottleRock attendees.

The expo, which spans 26 acres, is the site of the Napa Town and Country Fair, crab feeds and the Napa-Solano Home & Garden Show, which is the weekend after BottleRock. The grounds are bordered by residential neighborhoods, a school and small businesses.

Workers this week began transforming the expo into an outdoor rock venue with multiple stages. About 5,000 support staff, ranging from food and beverage workers to private security, will be part of the event.

"There's a lot of apprehension in the sense an event like this has never happened in Napa," said Chris Messina, president and CEO of the Napa Chamber of Commerce. "We have to prepare for the unknown."

Every available lodging option in Napa Valley, and in some surrounding communities, is spoken for. Restaurants and other businesses are anticipating record crowds on what already is a busy weekend in the valley because of Mother's Day.

Spotting an opportunity, many Napa residents are renting out their homes or driveways to festival-goers. One Napa couple advertised their home on Craigslist for $4,000 and as added incentive offered to cook meals, provide laundry service and chauffeur people around town.

"We have a cozy place that's really close (to the expo). We want to offer it up to some nice folks," said Michael Tambornini, a retired PG&E employee who, along with his partner, Dianne King, posted the online ad.

Tambornini said the couple did not apply for a permit to turn their home into a vacation rental, as required under city ordinances.

"I just said to myself, 'We're not doing anything out of the ordinary,' " he said. "As a family, we've been paying taxes on this house since 1950."

The city isn't equipped to root out every violation. But fire inspectors will visit restaurants and other businesses during BottleRock to enforce maximum occupancy limits.

Other neighbors near the expo were bracing for what they fear will be an unwanted onslaught. At its peak, the Town and Country Fair draws 16,000 visitors to the expo on peak days in August -- less than half that expected for the rock event.

Concerns about the festival's potential impacts sparked several community meetings, including one at the expo that drew hundreds of people. In addition to concerns about traffic and parking, neighbors express worries about unruly rock fans becoming nuisances.

Randy Jesch, who lives in a century-old home on the corner of Third and Bailey streets, said after much smaller events at the expo, he's found syringes and used condoms in his yard.

"Events like this end up being one big crisis management environment," said Jesch, a general contractor.

Road closures and other traffic-control measures are planned near the expo. Local police also have added additional "layers of security" for the event in the wake of the bombings in Boston, said Napa Police Capt. Steve Potter.

He said 40 officers, more than half of the city's sworn force of 76, will be assigned to patrol in and around the expo during the festival.

The CHP will devote roughly the same number of officers for traffic control, while deputies with the Napa County Sheriff's Office will monitor a temporary tent city that could draw 450 overnight campers to nearby Skyline Park.

"I think we've planned about as much as we can possibly can," Potter said. "We certainly hope for the best. But we understand there will be an impact on the neighborhoods in the area."

He said the Police Department's costs for the event will exceed $100,000 and be borne by BottleRock organizers, who also are providing several hundred private security guards for the festival. The city's Fire Department is projecting to spend a similar amount.

BottleRock is the creation of Napa residents Gabe Meyers and Bob Vogt, co-founders of Willpower Entertainment. Vogt also is a partner in Napa's Uptown Theater, which was refurbished and now draws national touring bands.

Several people familiar with the music industry said the two men have assembled a world-class team that is experienced in putting on rock festivals. The 35,000 people expected on peak days of BottleRock compares with 65,000 to 85,000 in attendance at Outside Lands in San Francisco and at Coachella, which is held at the Empire Polo Club in Indio.

Vogt said BottleRock organizers "have done everything, over and beyond what anyone has asked us to do," to address community concerns about the event, which he said has the support of the "vast majority of people in the Napa Valley."

He projected the event will pump $50 million into the local economy based on what festivals of similar sizes bring in for the communities in which they are set. He and Meyers also have expressed optimism that they will be able to donate up to $1 million to a consortium of community nonprofit groups.

The anticipated windfall and promise of Napa becoming known for more than as a stop on the wine-and-cheese circuit has earned Vogt and Meyers an outpouring of goodwill. But they also have faced criticism related to the grandiosity of their plans.

Vogt addressed concerns that organizers did not give the Napa community time to plan for BottleRock by saying he informed City Council members and other officials about the event in December. He noted that the expo is state property.

"We didn't come late to announcing this," he said.

However, Messina said most Napans didn't know about BottleRock until organizers made the "big splash" in February, and "almost instantly, the hotels were booked."

Messina said the occupancy rate for Mother's Day weekend in Napa typically is about 68 percent. With BottleRock, the entire city will have the no vacancy sign out

The city's transit occupancy tax for the month of May, which last year amounted to $412,401, also is certain to be more this year, Messina said.

Potter said he's still fielding a number of calls daily from residents with concerns about traffic, noise and other anticipated problems related to BottleRock.

"I don't think you can ever do enough outreach when you impact a neighborhood like this," he said.

Taking a break from washing her car last week, Colleen Hurley, whose home on Bailey backs up to the expo, said she worries about vandalism during BottleRock and being able to get to her job as a teacher for special-needs children.

She and her husband, Mike, turned down one man's offer to pay them up to $750 if he could pitch tents in their backyard, and another $3,000 if they would rent him their house.

"Somebody gets drunk and tumbles down the steps, and they figure out I didn't build them right -- there you go," said Mike Hurley, who also is a contractor.

The couple plan to stick it out and put up with their windows rattling from the sonic reverberations. Posted in the front window of their home was one of the festival's promotional stickers that read: "Keep calm and BottleRock on."

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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