Music News & Reviews

Why Gibson Ranch became a no-go for two major Sacramento music festivals

Festival fans sit in the shade during the Monster Energy Aftershock music festival at Gibson Ranch County Park on Sunday Oct. 25, 2015.
Festival fans sit in the shade during the Monster Energy Aftershock music festival at Gibson Ranch County Park on Sunday Oct. 25, 2015.

The 325-acre park in Elverta seemed like a game changer for outdoor Sacramento music festivals. On paper, Gibson Ranch boasted enough open space to accommodate more than 25,000 concertgoers and a park operator who was willing to let the music play for massive crowds.

Now the music is mostly silent at Gibson Ranch. Two large-scale concert festivals, City of Trees and Monster Energy Aftershock Festival, made their Gibson Ranch debuts in 2015 and both are not returning. The alternative-rock-styled City of Trees, which is sponsored by Radio 94.7, will be held Saturday at Cal Expo’s Bonney Field. The 2016 version of Aftershock heads back to Discovery Park, the original home of this hard rock extravaganza, on Oct. 22-23.

For those who attended either 2015 festival, problems were apparent. Both events were marred by traffic gridlock, with some Aftershock attendees stuck in the dusty parking lot for nearly three hours. That festival, headlined by Slipknot, Deftones and others, attracted a combined two-day attendance of 45,000. At City of Trees, which drew 9,000 to Gibson Ranch with headliners Cake, the traffic jam was exacerbated by a lack of lighting and attendants to direct cars.

Doug Ose, the real estate developer and former congressman who operates Gibson Ranch, said he hasn’t given up on the idea of hosting large-scale music festivals at the park. One of his goals for Gibson Ranch, which is owned by Sacramento County but run privately by Ose, is to construct an amphitheater that can accommodate crowds of more than 15,000. But for now, that’s a long-range goal as he continues to assess how to best prepare Gibson Ranch for large concerts.

According to Ose, “5,000 to 7,000 (attendees) is the sweet spot; 25,000 puts a lot of stress on the park. I wouldn’t want to do more than one or two of those a year.”

Ose was in talks with organizers from both City of Trees and Aftershock to discuss Gibson Ranch’s hosting the 2016 editions of both festivals. Some 2016 dates were put on hold at Gibson Ranch to potentially accommodate City of Trees, but the festival organizers ultimately opted for Bonney Field, home of the Sacramento Repucblic FC soccer team at Cal Expo.

In part, the move to Bonney Field was made because of its infrastructure. While Gibson Ranch offers plenty of outdoor space, throwing a concert at the park requires a lot of starting from scratch. Among logistical needs that need to be addressed at Gibson Ranch: A concert stage must be built, portable toilets delivered, a sound system installed and a traffic plan formulated.

Bonney Field has many of these amenities ready to go, including a stage that can be rolled out for concerts. Cal Expo also boasts ample paved parking and proximity to the freeway and to surface streets designed to handle busy traffic. Gibson Ranch, on the other hand, is accessed primarily by a two-lane road.

In addition to the parking problems, concertgoers at last year’s City of Trees complained on social media about overflowing portable toilets and a water refilling station temporarily running dry.

So far, City of Trees’ switch to Bonney Field appears to be a good move. Based on preliminary ticket sales, organizers are expecting a crowd of 13,000 on Saturday – a 30 percent attendance increase over 2015. Parking is included in the ticket price.

“We love Gibson Ranch, and Mr. Ose is amazing with the stewardship he’s showing with the space,” said Jennifer Irwin, events director for Entercom radio, the parent company of Radio 94.7. “We also love the residents of Elverta and we were impacting them so dramatically. It wasn’t showing us in the best possible light.”

Aftershock organizers opted to move back to Discovery Park, where the festival debuted in 2012, due to parking and traffic challenges at Gibson Ranch. But the venue switch has required some compromises, including lowering the overall audience capacity to 23,000 daily, compared with a 25,000 maximum daily capacity at Gibson Ranch.

To offset this lower capacity in terms of finances, Aftershock organizers raised the ticket cost by about $15 over 2015 prices, from $74.50 for a single-day ticket to $89.50. The festival itself, which is overseen by Danny Wimmer Presents of Los Angeles, costs $5.5 million to produce.

Discovery Park presents its own parking challenges. About 1,600 premium parking spaces, located across from Discovery Park, can be purchased in advance by Aftershock attendees. But the bulk of concertgoers will use a shuttle system that runs from Sleep Train Arena’s parking lot to Discovery Park.

Danny Hayes, chief executive officer of Danny Wimmer Presents, said he hopes to grow Aftershock’s attendance. But for now, it’s a balancing act to work within Discovery Park’s parking and space limitations while maintaining an affordable ticket price for the 23,000 daily concertgoers. Still, Hayes said, producing Aftershock at Gibson Ranch was ultimately too problematic.

“It’s a beautiful piece of property but the economics of trying to make parking there just don’t work,” said Hayes. “We have a motto, that the fans’ experience starts and stops with parking. One of the problems at Gibson Ranch was the two-lane highway made it impossible to handle parking flow. We just couldn’t go back there.”

For now, Gibson Ranch is focusing on hosting weddings and various public events, including a weekend-long Hmong festival that drew more than 6,000 in July. But Ose said he hopes that one day the big concerts return.

“It’s been a learning curve,” Ose said. “I hope (City of Trees) does well at Bonney Field, but they would be welcome to come back.”

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias

Related stories from Sacramento Bee