In mid-August, rumors surfaced online that the City of Lewisville is icing local businesses out from Western Days, the city’s major annual music and culture festival. With the event looming this weekend, community relations and tourism director James Kunke and event coordinator Daren Watkins discussed their side of the story.
The annual Western Days festival is the city’s largest event by an order of magnitude. More than 26,000 people attended the two-day festival last year, which is down from its peak of 29,642 in 2015 when Lynyrd Skynyrd headlined.
The event has ballooned over the years. City expenses on the event have climbed from $491,327 in 2013 all the way to $704,414 last year, and Watkins said it will be around $700,000 again in 2018. The reported economic impact of the event has hovered around $2 million each year since 2014 according to city data, a number that is deflated because Lewisville does not use multipliers when measuring economic impact.
“Ten years ago when we first went to two days, our total entertainment budget was $150,000,” Kunke said. “Now, we’re routinely paying $150,000 for our Saturday headliner. We paid more than [$200,000] for Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
Watkins said that the total cost for this year’s festival is about $700,000, with $295,000 of that going to main stage entertainment alone. He said the other two stages represent a $12,000 and $11,500 investment, respectively.
Rumors that the city has been freezing local businesses out of the festival circulated online last month. The rumors centered around the city’s partnership with beverage distributor Ben E. Keith to provide alcohol for the event instead of the local Old Town Brewery, as well as a claim by Kristi G’s co-owner Kenny Gravitt that the city had requested $6,000 from him to get into the event. These claims were used as evidence for a larger push to choose which businesses could and could not get in to Western Days.
These claims did not bear out, but the process does warrant examination. After tallying the approved vendor applications for this year’s event, Lewisville-based businesses account for 22 vendors, and non-Lewisville businesses account for 40. Kunke said the city fills its booths on a first-come first-served basis, but does allow local businesses an exclusive month at the beginning of the application period to apply.
Gravitt’s interaction with the city seems to have been based in poor communication between both parties. While Gravitt says he only wanted a booth to sell cupcakes out of, Kunke and Watkins said they received communication from Gravitt requesting information about sponsoring a package of events. While a food vendor booth costs between $375 and $575 depending on space along with a 20 percent cut of sales, sponsorships are much more expensive advertising deals that include naming rights.
All parties’ memories seem to be fuzzy on the issue, with most of the conversation having taken place a year ago — Gravitt mentioned a $6,000 figure on Facebook, and Kunke remembered him saying $3,000 on that same August Facebook thread, but the figure Watkins quoted him was $3,500, according to the original document which was sent to The Lewisville Texan Journal in an email. Gravitt confirmed that his error was caused by misremembering the figure.
Gravitt forwarded the subsequent email exchange between himself and Watkins to The Lewisville Texan Journal — the emails include several on Sept. 15, 2017, and follow-ups on Oct. 12 and 13. The initial contact seems to have been over the phone, so we don’t know exactly what Gravitt initially asked for. However, it is clear from the exchange that Watkins is under the impression that Gravitt wants to sponsor multiple events.
On Oct. 12, Watkins emailed a proposal that would have Kristi G’s sponsor and be the exclusive cupcake provider for the 2017 Holiday Stroll and the Christmas Parade for $3,500. Watkins’ proposal estimates that Kristi G’s would receive a combined $30,000 worth of advertising from this deal, and also offered to include a similar deal on the 2018 Colorpalooza event free of charge.
Kunke and Watkins say they did not receive any communication from Gravitt after sending that offer, but Gravitt did send an email the next day saying that he couldn’t afford that deal asking if the fee to host a booth was smaller. Gravitt said he never received any response afterward.
In the Facebook thread, Gravitt said he felt like the city did not respond because they weren’t interested in a deal that would call for a smaller amount of money. Kunke and Watkins said they did not receive any further communication and figured that Gravitt didn’t want to discuss it further after seeing the $3,500 figure. Kunke, who is often involved in explaining issues from the city’s perspective on the City of Lewisville Facebook page, said he saw the post but thought his explanation was too long to make sense on the platform, and resolved to contact Gravitt after this year’s Western Days to clear things up.
“I saw on Facebook that someone from Kristi G’s cupcakes complained and said, ‘I tried to get a booth and it was going to cost $3,000,” Kunke said. “And I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s not true.’”
Kunke said the city never received an application from Kristi G’s to host a booth. The Lewisville Texan Journal has obtained all the applications for Western Days booths, and an application from Kristi G’s is not among them.
Kunke and Watkins also responded to the potential implication that local alcohol providers Old Town Brewhouse, Witherspoon Distillery and LaRue Wines were being cut out on the behalf of Ben E. Keith, which provides Anheuser Busch beers for the event and pays Lewisville $15,000 for signage and advertising. The city also takes a 30 percent cut of beer sales, which are handled by G Texas Catering. Last year, they took in a little more than $42,000 in commission on the G Texas booths.
Kunke flatly denied that the city his pushing out its local alcohol purveyors, and said the alcohol vendors’ status has largely been determined by Texas law.
Kunke said there are several legal and practical barriers to Old Town Brewhouse supplying beer for Western Days, first being volume. Watkins said Ben E. Keith sold more than 1,700 cases of Budweiser last year, almost running out — they’d only brought 1,800. No independent brewer could serve that volume of beer.
In terms of rules, the city only serves beer in cans and aluminum bottles at Western Days, and until this year, Old Town Brewhouse didn’t have the equipment to can its beer. Kunke said the brewery had a presence at the craft beer stage, but could not be sold at the main bars. However, the brewhouse has acquired canning technology for this year, and will be sold at two of the festival bars.
Another consideration is that the Old Town Brewhouse does not have the license to sell beer outside of brewhouse property. Brewing and distributing beer in Texas requires two different licenses — breweries are allowed to sell their own beer on their own property, but otherwise must sell it to a distributor, who will take it to a bar or other location to sell for a profit. Also, Texas does not allow exclusive pour contracts — in other words, it does not allow bars to offer beer from only one source.
In order for Old Town Brewhouse to take Ben E. Keith’s place as the festival beer provider, not only would it need an entirely different license and a vastly expanded brewing capacity, it would also need to purchase and re-sell other non-Old Town beers to be in compliance with the state.
Kunke said that Witherspoon Distillery has partnered with the city several times as a sponsor and offered samples and tours during the festival. He and Watkins also said that Jack Daniels has offered $4,000 to sponsor the event, but that the city turned it down in order to avoid conflict with Witherspoon.
“I’ve heard people say that all we’re interested in is getting as much money as we can. We’ve turned down money from Jack Daniels three years in a row,” Kunke said. “I’ve also heard some people say that Witherspoon is a favorite and the brewhouse is not, and we take care of our favorites and we don’t take care of the ones — holy cow, we love them both, we want them both there! We wish there were more we could do with them.”
Lewisville vinter LaRue Wines used to sponsor Western Days, but stopped. Kunke said this was due to an expansion of Lewisville’s conflict of interest policy two years ago — LaRue is co-owned by husband and wife Cleve Joiner and Jillian Goldthorpe, both of whom were city employees, and city policy changed such that the city was no longer allowed to partner with business owned by city employees. Joiner and Goldthorpe have both retired since then, and LaRue will return as a Western Days sponsor this year.
Kunke praised Ben E. Keith for being flexible on their deal, as the city has, with Ben E. Keith’s blessing, overstepped the bounds of their agreement multiple times. He said the city putting signs up advertising Old Town Brewhouse products and insisting that it be served goes against the agreement and that the city even offered to negotiate the deal down to less than $15,000, but Ben E. Keith was willing to let it go. LaRue also conflicts with Ben E. Keith, which serves wine on site, a fact that the company has also looked past.
Another unrelated criticism city staff addressed was that they’d booked the Randy Rogers Band. Randy Rogers has played three times in the past eight years, but those performances represent two of the largest festivals and two of the largest beer sales totals in the event’s history.
“Until they stop coming by the cruise ship load to see that guy, I will keep running him out there,” Watkins said.
Vendor applications went out in early May this year. Follow The Lewisville Texan Journal or the City of Lewisville website to be notified for next year’s application process. Western Days runs this weekend Sept. 28-29, with the gates opening at 5 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. Saturday. Admission is free with a ticket that can be downloaded here, but starting at 7 p.m., a $10 cash-only $10 cash-only charge will be required for admission for everyone except children younger than 12. For more information visit LewisvilleWesternDays.com.