The worst of the Gulf oil spill hasn’t reached Alabama’s coast, and Shaul Zislin can only hope it doesn’t this weekend: He’s putting on a three-day beach party for about 30,000 people starting Friday, with big-name bands playing just yards from the surf.
The Hangout Beach, Music and Arts Festival _ with acts including John Legend and the Zac Brown Band performing on stages built on the broad, white-sand public beach _ first was meant to jump-start the summer tourist season on the northern Gulf Coast.
Now, it’s a benefit show with a message: Come on down, the crude spewing out of a well off in Gulf of Mexico hasn’t stained Alabama’s beaches.
“There are thousands of families who depend on people coming down here, not just for this festival but for all season,” said Zislin. “We as a tourism community, which is just as important as fishing, must make the stand that we are still open for business.”
Zislin owns The Hangout, a restaurant, bar and entertainment complex that opened two years ago on the beach at Gulf Shores. When the spill occurred, he and promoters decided to go ahead with the music festival despite the possibility of tar balls or oil washing ashore as the bands played.
Originally meant as a moneymaker to lure thousands of tourists, Zislin said any profits from the event will now be given to the Gulf cause _ environmental cleanups, tourism campaigns and scholarships are all possible, although final decisions haven’t yet been made.
In New Orleans, a benefit show will be held Sunday to raise money for coastal areas impacted by the oil spill.
The New Orleans concert will focus more on the environment since the oil gushing from the blown out well already has stained parts of its coast.
In Alabama, where tar balls have been reported on beaches in both of the state’s coastal counties, the message will be about tourism, which generates more than one-third of all the state’s tourism dollars.
Besides Legend and Zac Brown, the 50-act lineup includes Phish frontman Trey Anastasio and TAB; Alison Krauss and Union Station; The Black Crowes; and Ben Harper and the Relentless7.
Oil isn’t forecast to reach Gulf Shores during the weekend, but Zislin said 4-foot-tall fences are being erected along the shoreline to keep concertgoers out of the surf. The precaution is more about protecting people from themselves rather than from petroleum, he said.
“Rock and roll, drinking, the beach. You better err on the side of caution,” said Zislin.
Promoters originally planned to cap attendance at 35,000 people daily, or 105,000 total, but ticket sales took a hit after the spill. Rather than getting a bump in business as showtime approached, organizers instead fielded questions about whether the concert was still on, Zislin said.
State tourism officials said the festival is now expected to attract some 30,000 people or maybe a lot more. Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said 20,000 people could be on the beach on Friday night alone.
The city decided to allow the concert to go on more than a week ago. At that time, the oil appeared to be heading to the Alabama coast, but then changed direction. Craft said he feels better every time a new forecast is issued showing the crude well away from the beaches. As an added safeguard, regulators are monitoring water quality at about 20 beaches.
“The reality is that we are in good shape. The perception is that we have been damaged. That is something we are going to be fighting for a long time,” said Craft.
The state will begin airing tourism commercials on about 50 television stations on Saturday in a $1.5 million advertising campaign that urges visitors to come to the beach. Rental agencies and charter fishing captains reported a wave of cancellations as the oil spill spread, but the music festival should boost business.
“We are expecting crowds starting on noon on Friday,” said Herb Malone, tourism director on the coast. “Between room reservations for Memorial Day weekend and the music festival, we anticipate hotel bookings to be on par with last May.”