How A Park In Queens Saved Governors Ball

Game Changer: Aerial shot of Kendrick Lamar’s headlining set on June 11 at Governors Ball, taking place for the first time at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, which was built and developed off the backs of two World’s Fairs in 1939-40 and 1964-65. Vestiges of the latter include N.Y. State Pavilion Observation Towers (behind stage) , Terrace on the Park (right, formerly a heliport). and the iconic Unisphere. Photo by Charles Reagan / Governors Ball

New York City for many reasons is a difficult place at best to host a major music festival. Its population density and exorbitant real estate prices leave little open space; there’s a plethora of live music on any given night rivaling a festival bill, including free events (see Central Park SummerStage, Celebrate Brooklyn and several performing arts center festivals, among others); its climate, of the humid subtropical variety (and partially humid continental climate), means all longterm bets on weather forecasting are off; and the city’s bureaucracy and red tape are brutal.

As a result, Gotham has seen more than its fair share of quality major festivals come and go (or never get off the ground: see Bonnaroo N.E., Creamfields, Vineland). Among them Lollapalooza, Field Day, All Points West, Tibetan Freedom Concert, The Great GoogaMooga, Rolling Loud (off this year), Panorama, 4Knots, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Northside Festival, Seaport Music Festival, Meadows Festival, CBGBs Festival, Catalpa Festival, Siren Festival, the Red Bull Music Academy, CMJ Music Festival, The Macintosh New York Music Festival, the Panorama Music Festival and Across the Narrows.

This year, though, 88rising’s Head in the Clouds Festival launched and Afropunk and Electric Zoo continue undeterred as did smaller festivals like Winter Jazz Fest and GlobalFEST. Despite myriad challenges, though, there is one NYC mega fest that remains indefatigable, soldiering on despite so much adversity. And this year, with a new venue, that festival may have finally found the key to success and longevity.

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Tom Russell / Photo by Danny Clinch

“I’ll be pretty frank, I did not really see a future for Gov Ball being in the parking lot of a baseball stadium,” says Tom Russell, co-founder of Founders Entertainment who with Jordan Wolowitz launched Governors Ball in 2011. For the past two years it was held on the less-than ideal cement surrounding Citi Field. “To have a festival, in an iconic New York City Park, one that was designed for events, one that welcomed events like ours and one that just worked incredibly, breathes new life into Gov Ball.”

Reinvigorating the fest is the gem that is Flushing Meadows Corona Park in the culturally rich borough of Queens, where Gov Ball was held June 10-12. If not as well-known as its counterparts in Manhattan (Central Park) and Brooklyn (Prospect Park), the park situated along Flushing Bay is an urban oasis with ball fields, recreational facilities, cultural institutions, green space and monuments. Its grand design came in the wake of two World’s Fairs, 1939’s “The World of Tomorrow” and 1964’s “Peace Through Understanding,” with help from “The Power Broker” Robert Moses, a controversial figure whom few of the millions who flock each year to Flushing Meadows – which now includes a zoo, a museum a botanical garden, boat house and more – would quibble with. And just two weeks ago, the park may have done nothing less than save a music festival.

Throughout its 12-year history, Gov Ball has faced down every NYC challenge thrown its way. This includes transportation hassles, space issues, inclement weather, artist cancellations and more. “We started out on Governors Island,” Russell says, “which you can only get to by boat. We moved to Randall’s Island, which is pretty difficult to get on and off of. We moved to the Citi Field parking lot, which is a concrete parking lot. As such, we’ve never had a site that lent itself to a great festival experience. And this year, we finally have a home that was a beautiful green space designed for large-scale events, one that transformed the entire experience to the level the festival always wanted.”

Perhaps, also, the stars this year just aligned. Witness Gov Ball beating out by a single day the Canadian wildfire smoke that enveloped and paralyzed the entire city. With that, Gov Ball was off to the races with headliners that included Kendrick Lamar, Lizzo, Odesza, Lil Nas X, Kim Petras, Lil Baby, Girl In Red and Diplo. By all accounts, Gov Ball at its new venue was a success.

“For year one of a brand-new venue, we were very happy with how things went,” Russell said. “We did over 100,000 people over the three days,” which was 20,000 fewer than the 40,000-cap per day. “For us, we look at Flushing Meadows as our home for the long term. So having a great experience and having smooth operations was most important. And we accomplished that goal.”

The apportioned site, in the southwest part of Flushing Meadows adjacent to the iconic Unisphere, was fenced off and filled with trees and green space. The site featured three main stages and brand activations strewn throughout (thank you, Dunkin Donuts!). Public transportation to and from the park were outstanding thanks to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The nearby 7 Subway, which stops at Times Square and Grand Central, and the Long Island Railroad, which terminates at Penn Station, were a 15 minute walk with ease use off the charts. The stations also serve Citi Field and Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (home of the U.S. Open), which regularly handle throngs of fans with extra-wide ramps delivering festivalgoers straight into the park – a huge improvement over Randall’s Island.

Much as Founders Entertainment is invigorated by Gov Ball’s success, so are their city partners. “Everybody we’ve spoken to with the city has been very, very happy,” Russell says. “That includes the New York City Parks Department, Queens Borough President’s Office, the Mayor’s Office, NYPD and FDNY. These are relationships we have grown over the past 12 years. We have a very good reputation of running safe events and standing by our word and being good tenants.”

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Forest For the Trees: Set amidst a shady grove, the Statue of Liberty sculpture between the Verizon and Bacardi stages was a centralized Gov Ball meeting point. For the 1939-40 World’s Fair, whose theme was “The World of Tomorrow,” 10,000 trees were planted in Flushing Meadows. Photo by Henry Hwu / Gov Ball

Assisting Gov Ball is C3, owned by Live Nation, which acquired a majority stake in Founders Entertainment in 2016. “Our partners at C3 do all of our back office – accounting, legal, risk, payroll, etc.,” explains Russell. “I report to Charlie Walker and the guys at C3 who are such a wealth of information and knowledge. Just given the scale of events they manage and being able to tap into their resources, skill sets and knowledge about production, operations, safety and security, has been incredibly helpful over the years. We love working with those guys.”

For Gov Ball, the Queens park could be NYC’s answer to what other long-term, successful festivals in urban markets have figured out. Flushing Meadows, he says, could “get Gov Ball on the same level as some of these other perennial urban festivals: Lollapalooza in Grant Park, Austin City Limits at Zilker Park and Outside Lands in Golden Gate Park. These are iconic, amazing institutions that have venues that are selling points by themselves. People want to go to those parks even when there’s no festival.”

As a first use case, Gov Ball in Flushing Meadows clearly hit its marks; now, one persistent question is if other festivals will look to use the park as a venue? Rolling Loud, of which Live Nation is also a majority stakeholder, launched its New York version in 2019, but took this year off. And when Goldenvoice, owned by AEG, pulled the plug on Panorama Festival at Randall’s Island in 2019, president and CEO Paul Tollett indicated they had their sights trained on Flushing Meadows, having successfully put on a Paul Simon concert there in 2018. Will these fests also turn up at the Queens park?

Either way, Russell remains bullish on Flushing Meadows as a long-term partner. “This is just the start of something truly special,” he says. “and next year and the future are looking very bright.”