The Mullet Festival may come back as early as next October – thanks to a unanimous vote from the Niceville City Council to move forward with coordinating with an event planning group called White Hat Productions.
The agreement came with some significant caveats, though. After about 20 minutes of discussion between the promoters, White Hat Production Matthew McKinnon and Mark Wagner, and the Council – Wagner asked for a contingent approval. A contingent approval, as the Council and the promoters defined it in the Niceville City Council meeting, is an approval that can be taken back if two conditions aren’t met. “That way, we can start moving forward, and then we can get the parking worked out. If we can’t get the parking worked out, then we pull the plug,” Wagner said to the Council.
The Council would eventually agree, so long as White Hat Production gets the blessing of Northwest Florida State College President Dr. Devin Stephenson for event patrons to park on the campus or finds another parking alternative suitable to the Council and City Manager David Deitch.
“Dave, I’m looking at you as the gatekeeper for this on whether this comes before us. I think it’s still premature to be before us,” Councilman Sal Nodjomian said to Deitch.
The Council also made their yes conditional on the organizers’ ability to work out a staffing situation with the City’s police, fire, public works force, and county EMS for the proposed event.
Finally, the city has given a tentative approval to use the Mullet Festival Brand for the event.
Last month, McKinnon and Wagner came before the Council and left without a vote concerning whether or not the City would support or approve of the festival being hosted on the grounds with the City’s support.
Wagner and McKinnon say they want a large festival to bring back the Mullet Days of the past. According to a proposed budget they submitted to the Council – they plan to sell 70,000 tickets over a three-day festival in October 2024.
They also promised an alcohol-free Sunday at the Mullet Festival, which had taken place in the past.
According to their proposal, tickets would cost $10 for everyone 11 and up. Kids under that age would get into the event for free. ‘Okaloosa County Employees’ could get into the event for free from 10a-3p on the Friday, and students would have a half-off discount for admission. It wasn’t clear if ‘Okaloosa County Employees’ referred to government employees generally, board of county commission employees specifically, or anyone that works from within Okaloosa County.
McKinnon and Wagner also said they would introduce a ‘Miss Mullet Pageant,’ a food court, vendor village, a large concert stage, and ‘roll back prices’ on tickets – but did not say what those prices would be.
“We’re not here to make millions of dollars; we’re here to put on a really good show for the community – that’s all,” Wagner told the Council.
The promoters noted in their financials they would look to bring in $100,000 from sponsors and another $20,000 from vendor booths. In their October documents, they asked the City for $50,000 to help support the event, something they have since walked back, though they have asked for some unclear sum (either $50,000 or $95,000) in fee for service contributions from the city. They now say they will split some of the money with the City, though they didn’t say what that number would be.
On the expenses side of the equation – they plan to set aside $95,000 to pay for the overtime costs of Niceville Fire and Police and Okaloosa County EMS.
City officials showed their frustration with not having a nailed down number of officers, firefighters and public works officials they would need from the city if White Hat Productions returned the Mullet Festival to Niceville.
“We’ve talked three times, and you were [at October’s city council meeting]. What I don’t know is, ‘what is the ask for my people? Is it 20 police officers and 10 firemen and 30 public works guys for eight hours or three days? You’ve offered me no specifics,” said Niceville City Manager David Deitch.
The promoters would set aside another $200,000 to pay the artists who would also perform.
According to their budget, the promoters would net $574,000 from the weekend.
The Council asked department heads from Police, Fire and Public Works to chime in on the possibility of another Mullet Festival taking place in the City.
“We do not have the manpower to support this,” Public Works manager Jonathan Laird told the Council. Police Chief David Popwell and Fire Chief Tommy Mayville expressed similar misgivings about an event of the proposed size coming back to Niceville.
In the past, according to City Manager David Deitch, the City would shut down all of its services for days, sometimes weeks, to set up the Mullet Festival in October. That was when the event was put on by a non-profit group associated with city employees.
The Council also agreed the logistics surrounding the proposed festival, as is, were not sufficient. Mayor Daniel Henkel was explicit that the city would not allow the use of the fields of Twin Oaks Park for parking. As late as November 14th, a source with knowledge of the grounds at Twin Oaks Park confirmed a soccer referee reported a field to the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) and claimed he was injured due to field conditions. This resulted in the FHSAA shutting the field down. Mid Bay News is working on confirming that information independently.
“The parking issue is going to keep going,” Matthew McKinnon said to the Council, “That’s not something that I think we can solve today. It’s not something I think we will solve tomorrow. We still have to find other locations for parking. That’s why, if you look [on the profit and loss estimation sheet] we went really heavy on shuttles because we have to find and work with other community leaders and business leaders. We’re going to find that location. But, the more time we spend not getting an answer, we lose some of the top-name artists.”
The promoters told the Council and Deitch they would speak with Northwest Florida State College President Dr. Devin Stephenson about using campus parking spots and shuttling people to the Mullet Festival site.
City Manager David Deitch soured on that idea. “If I’m Dr. Stephenson, and I’ve got 20,000 drunks coming back to my campus to get into a car, that’s a security issue for him, certainly a liability issue for him. If the liability is on these gentlemen, then so be it. Nevertheless, you’re gonna have potentially 1,000s of drunks walking around the college campus in the middle of the night,” Deitch said to the Council, “The other concern, too, is on Friday and Saturday, a couple 1,000 people pouring out on the Niceville roads at 10 o’clock at night, having drank all afternoon and evening. The potential liability to our citizens and the hazards that that might cause is something that we need to think about as leaders of this community. And whether or not we want to put our citizens in that position.”
That same strategy would not be possible today: “This is a heavy lift,” said Deitch to Councilman Sal Nodjomian, “It was in the past, and then they anticipate this will be again. We don’t have the manpower that we had in years past when the festival happened. In years past, as I understand it, the commitment from the city was almost entirely from the Public Works Department, Police Department, Fire Department… If this is the will of the Council, we’re gonna salute smartly and execute.”
As November, 2023, the City cannot lease the land to anyone – as it is technically under the Air Force’s purview. But, city officials anticipate that situation would change before the theoretical festival would be held.
Technically, the promoters can only ask for the workforce and material support right now. But, city leaders believe that they will resolve any issues through a long-term lease on the land that they will seal with the Air Force. The Air Force owns the land and negotiations are underway for a long-term lease on the property between Big Blue’s property office in San Antonio and The City of Niceville.
“I anticipate by October of next year, we’ll have a full lease on that entire piece of property, on the Mullet Festival site and the Twin Oaks Site,” Deitch told the Council.