Sybesma Comes Home

Steve Sybesma, who founded Sunshine Promotions with Dave Lucas in the early ’70s, has returned Stateside after spending more than a decade in China to launch the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival in Florida. 
The attractive landscape of south-Florida will soon be the site of a festival, courtesy of industry vet Steve Sybesma and his business partners.

Sybesma and three partners have formed Soundslinger, which will produce the 2016 camping festival with a 35,000-capacity main-stage area, 10,000-square-foot lodge that will be used as an artist hang and rehearsal hall, and a multi-genre theme ranging from EDM to living legends performances. To hear Sybesma tell it, the property in Okeechobee County was so amazing it lured him all the way back from his China adventures.

“The property is hard to describe,” he told Pollstar. “It has natural amenities unchanged; nature preserves that are maintained; grasslands that are now improved. It includes lakes that were built, a meticulously engineered drainage system that has to satisfy the South Florida Water Management District. … It has 6 miles of paved roads throughout. It’s incredibly laid out for events. It’s just amazing.”

Alongside Lucas, Sybesma built Sunshine Promotions into one of the country’s most successful promotional companies, constructing iconic venues like Deer Creek Music Center, Polaris Amphitheater and Murat Theater, before selling Sunshine to SFX Entertainment for $50 million. Sybesma went on to form China West Entertainment, based out of Shanghai, bringing acts like The Black Eyed PeasTiesto, and Kylie Minogue to the country, before merging with Ato Ato Integrated Media.

Since then, Sybesma was involved with events like Pepsi’s “Battle of the Bands” and the 2010 Miss Universe China Pageant before the recent Storm Electronic Music Festival. That’s about the time Sybesma’s career turned stateside. “I was in China for 11 years at that point,” he said. “I told my partner, ‘I found this opportunity. I’ll stick with you until the end of Storm and then I’m taking off. I gave about six months’ notice.” The EDM event wrapped Oct.6, and Sybesma flew to set up shop in Miami Oct. 9. Sybesma had become enamored by the setting he saw the previous Christmas, when he was introduced to Florida real estate developer Cliff Rosen.

“Cliff had bought a site in south Florida. A family retreat. He decided to develop it into a ranch community. He sold off a couple of blocks but the recession hit in 2008 and nobody built any homes there. He invested a great deal of money into the roadway system. It had six miles of paved roads throughout.

“He conceived of doing something on the property in recreation and entertainment and wanted to talk to somebody in the business. He had a good vision but that’s why he called me. He convinced me to come down; I flew to the property and was taken by the site. It was so spectacular; so perfect for a camping festival site.”

Rosen became the first partner. Then came BGP veteran Jim Tobin, who found his niche in locating, developing, building and managing sites for camping events for Phish, and then for Bonnaroo, Governors Ball, Hangout and about 60 other festivals.

“I brought him to Florida. He was reluctant to come because he has seen hundreds of sites, and people want him to look at sites all the time. But after he came he said it was the best site he’s ever seen, and he brought a few other industry experts who were blown away by it. That’s when I made a decision to leave China and start a new company,” Sybesma said.

Although the site features tropical foliage, wildlife and lakes, it also has a feature that some would overlook: hard-packed sand-soil, which does not turn into a muddy mess after a downpour, and doesn’t fuel a dust storm in the dry months.

Also on board is the “young, superstar partner” that Sybesma felt he needed: Paul Peck, who has been handling the Bonnaroo SuperJam since the early days of the Tennessee festival. Peck, too, was reluctant to join until he saw the site, according to Sybesma. 

The newly named “Sunshine Grove” will have the Moonlight Oasis featuring a white sand swimming beach and bar; The Woodlands all-night DJ stage; the Yogachobee Holistic Center; an arts center; and a Ferris Wheel.

“We hope to draw from the eastern U.S.,” Sybesma said. “We’re about an hour from Palm Beach, two-and-a-half hours from Miami, and south of Orlando.”

He’s also not afraid of competition.

“There are 850 festivals in the United States, right? Of course there is competition. But out of 850 there are only a handful of quality camping festivals.”