Ganim: Vibes owes city $750,000

Photo of Brian Lockhart

BRIDGEPORT — Another major attraction is in trouble with Mayor Joe Ganim over allegedly shortchanging the city.

The annual Gathering of the Vibes music festival, whose organizer in late November suddenly canceled this year’s event, owes $750,000 for police overtime, according to Ganim’s administration.

“They have not paid for 2013, 2014, 2015,” said Av Harris, the mayor’s spokesman.

Add that debt to nearly $525,000 in back rent City Hall claims it is owed for Captain’s Cove Seaport, the Webster Bank Arena and the Ballpark at Harbor Yard, and that makes four of Bridgeport’s best known attractions that Ganim claims are deadbeats.

Ganim, who pledged to hold the l i ne on taxes during last year’s successful comeback campaign, has been complaining he inherited a $20 million deficit from former Mayor Bill Finch.

Paul Timpanelli, longtime head of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, said the city needs to balance its books and “be made whole,” but cannot afford to lose places and events that draw visitors.

He hoped the parties will be able to negotiate.

“Is the Vibes, in my opinion, a good thing for Bridgeport? The arena? The ballpark? Captain’s Cove? The answer to all those questions is ‘yes,’” Timpanelli said. “They bring people into the city to spend money and go away with a new image of what they’ve experienced here, and hopefully it’s all positive.”

Timpanelli added he had heard the Vibes owed money, but “I had no clue it was that big a number.”

Founded in 1996 to celebrate the music of late Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia, the Vibes has been held in various locations, but is perhaps most synonymous with Bridgeport.

The festival first came to Connecticut’s largest city in 1999, during Ganim’s first term as mayor, and was in the middle of a five-year contract approved in late 2012 with Finch.

Ganim ousted Finch in last September’s Democratic primary.

For years the city covered much of the costs of policing the Vibes. But the latest contract called for organizers to pay police $250,000 annually.

Ken Hays, the normally accessible Vibes co-founder, on Tuesday referred questions about the alleged overtime bill to Stephen Bohannon, who ran public relations for the festival.

“On advice of counsel, we cannot comment,” Bohannon said.

After a successful 20th season last summer, Hays in November announced, “We need a timeout.”

He pledged a “triumphant return” in 2017, but added, “the venue ... is definitely in question.”

Neither Hays nor the outgoing Finch administration, which ended with Ganim’s Dec. 1 swearing-in, made any mention at the time of any outstanding money owed.

Finch spokesman Brett Broesder in November said, “To the best of my knowledge the Vibes lived up to all of their commitments, or at least most of them, to the point where it’s not a major issue.”

That was the city’s message for years — that the Vibes pays its bills — until Hearst Connecticut Media in 2012 obtained financial records that showed how much Bridgeport was spending on police overtime.

“Why did we never know this $750,000 was not paid?” Trish Swain, a loyal Vibes attendee who served on the City Council and its budget committee for the last two years, asked Tuesday.

Swain said a new mayoral administration will always point fingers at their successor and she would like to hear Hays’ side of the story as well.

“They gotta pay something,” Swain said. “(But) have they bartered or negotiated a price? Is he (Hays) arguing the amount that we’re charging? Has there been discussion about that?”

Hays claimed in 2012, when his contract renewal with Bridgeport was up in the air, that it costs more to stage a concert in a city park versus a rural venue with existing infrastructure, particularly in expensive Connecticut.

Hays at that time also disputed assumptions he pockets as much as $1 million in profits after each Vibes.

“That’s not even close,” Hays said. “There have been years I lost money because of weather, competition or people didn’t like the lineup of bands.”

Since taking over City Hall, Team Ganim has also been complaining that it is owed nearly $525,000 in back rent for Captain’s Cove, the arena and minor league ballpark.

“This is just the current year,” Ken Flatto, Ganim’s finance director, told the City Council’s finance committee Monday. “Some of these folks may owe more than that.”

The tenants of Captain’s Cove and owner of the Bridgeport Bluefish, in interviews last month, both claimed they were up to date on their rent. Arena officials have not returned requests for comment.

The Ganim administration has said it is trying to schedule meetings with those entities and acknowledged there could be explanations for the debt.

“We go to these meetings, we’ll find out,” Nestor Nkwo, Ganim’s budget chief, told council members.

Ganim is certainly cognizant of the value of the arena and ballpark to the city. They were built during his first administration, something he continually reminded voters while on the comeback trail last year.