The trouble with ComFest
The crowds are too big and the anything-goes atmosphere is under attack in the wake of a tragic stabbing. Can the Goodale Park festival answer its growing legion of critics without ruining the best party in town.
A scene from ComFest. File.
Mark Fisher is in his Brewery District law office, talking about ComFest’s winter of discontent. About a month earlier, Fisher stepped down as one of the lead organizers of the celebration of art, music and progressive politics. He admits the decision was a “bit of a protest.”
For 21 years, Fisher devoted his life to ComFest. He recruited volunteers, worked 100-hour weeks, served as spokesman and helped the so-called “party with a purpose” grow from a small campus-area happening to the Mardi Gras of Columbus. “ComFest was my religion,” he says.
But earlier this year, Fisher began to lose faith. With ComFest facing growing criticism from neighbors and increased scrutiny from police, he proposed a public awareness campaign to encourage attendees to keep the event and the surrounding area safe and clean. His fellow organizers liked the idea, but added a measure Fisher couldn’t stomach: cutting back on the music. “It went too far,” he says.
Fisher, a gregarious domestic relations attorney with long white hair and an easy laugh, was one of the guiding lights of the transformation of the festival into a three-day, six-stage showcase for the Columbus music scene. Last year alone, nearly 200 acts played the event, offering a mind-blowing array of rock, folk, jazz, blues, country and bluegrass—a local music extravaganza unique to Columbus. “I don’t know that it exists anywhere else,” Fisher says. “ComFest is the thing that Columbus can really hang its hat on.”
This year, Fisher says the festival—slated for June 25 through 27—will increase downtime between acts and close stages earlier than before, reducing the amount of music offered by as much as a third. He acknowledges the changes might succeed in shrinking the crowds that have pushed Goodale Park to the breaking point in recent years as ComFest has grown into one of the city’s premier summer attractions. The benefit, however, comes with too steep a price for him. “It is possible ComFest is doomed to be a victim of its own success,” he says.
The Community Festival—better known by its shortened named—is the little party that could. In 1972, a group of campus-area activists hosted the first one on a small triangle-shaped patch of grass at East 16th and Waldeck avenues. It has moved twice since—first in 1983 to a vacant lot on High Street in the Short North (now the site of Victorian Gate), then a decade later to Goodale Park, where it’s flourished over the past 17 years.
Known as the city’s alternative festival, ComFest is unlike any other event in Columbus. It’s free, grass roots, easygoing, self-reliant, volunteer-run with no corporate sponsors (beer sales pay for everything). True to its 1960s-era counterculture roots—many of its founders remain involved today—ComFest is run collectively. There’s no boss or official ComFest leader, though a few veteran volunteers naturally have more influence than others and Jeffrey “Ro-Z” Mendelson, the co-owner of the recently closed Monkeys Retreat in the Short North, holds the title of “treasurer.” The main decisions are made by a general planning committee of about 40 people that anyone can join, with responsibilities delegated to several subcommittees (beer, archive, cleanup/recycling, electric, entertainment, to name a few). Think of it as the People’s Republic of ComFest.
“You have no idea what ComFest committee meetings are like,” says Fisher. “It’s true democracy in action. It can be really frustrating and maddening. You’re dealing with some really interesting personalities, some real freethinkers. But if you really love ComFest, you hang in there.”
Indeed, that dedication is one of the hallmarks of ComFest. Volunteers work year-round putting together the event. And despite its messy democratic principles, it’s a remarkably well-run operation. City officials long have given the festival high marks for running a by-the-book ship, working hard to clean and care for Goodale Park and mitigating the impact on the surrounding neighborhood. “Over the years, they’ve been a very responsive organization,” says Alan McKnight, head of the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department.
The key to it all has been the mellow, friendly vibe. ComFest is famous (maybe infamous) for its public nudity and blatant dope smoking. But no woman would bare her breasts (or paint them) if leering thugs hassled her, nor would the cops give a joint-passing reveler so much leeway if the festival had a history of violence and mayhem. Every year, Goodale Park, one of the city’s premier public spaces in the middle of a thriving historic neighborhood, transforms into a mini-Woodstock. That would have stopped years ago if partygoers trashed the place. “There has been a lot of self-restraint,” says Marc Conte, chairman of the Victorian Village Commission.
Or at least there used to be. ComFest has grown far beyond its core audience of hipsters, music buffs, campus-area residents (from the Short North to Clintonville) and left-wing activists. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but Fisher estimates about 70,000 attended over the three days last year, with about 20,000 on Saturday night, the biggest of the weekend. Beer perhaps represents the most telling metric. Last year, ComFest went through 1,200 kegs, Fisher says, 200 more than five years ago, when the festival first crossed the 1,000-keg threshold. “A couple years ago, when I saw CD101 broadcasting right on-site, urging everyone to come down, I knew it was over,” says John Petric, the longtime music critic for The Other Paper and a freelance columnist for Columbus Monthly.
Petric, a former admirer of ComFest, has turned into one of its biggest critics. “It’s lost its soul,” he says. Gone is the communal feeling of the old days, he says, replaced by people gathered in little circles, staring at each other, getting drunk and high, no one paying attention to the music blaring from multiple stages. Gone, too, is the cool, help-your-fellow-ComFester vibe, replaced by a handicapped man with his two daughters in tow, getting laughed at when his three-wheel scooter tipped over, as Petric recounted in a scathing Other Paper column last year. “It’s been a long time since I felt community there,” he says. And he’s not the only one. “I will run into out-of-towners, and they’re like, ‘This is not what I left,’ ” he adds.
A rougher, less considerate element has invaded the festival in recent years. “There is no respect for people whatsoever,” says Pat Collins, the owner of Renaissance Realty and a longtime Victorian Village resident. Collins and several neighbors are gathered in her Buttles Avenue home across the street from Goodale Park. To be sure, ComFest has some fans in the neighborhood—
80 percent of the property owners on Park Street and Dennison Avenue sign off on the closing of their streets every year during the festival. But none are in Collins’s house on this morning in mid April. “It’s a big free-for-all,” says Seymour Ludwig, a Neil Avenue resident.
Everyone in the group has ComFest horror stories. Someone pulled phone wires from the side of Collins’s house, and an antique rocking chair was stolen from her front porch. Ludwig mentions three large stones that were removed from his garden and thrown in the middle of Neil Avenue. Others tell of ruined landscaping, broken fences, public urination and traffic and parking hassles. Ann Griffen, a Buttles Avenue resident, shows photographs of truck tracks, trampled turf and a mud slide in Goodale Park. She took the pictures two years ago after a rainy ComFest weekend. She says the park still hasn’t fully recovered. “We leave on Thursday and don’t come back before Monday night, because you can’t drive in and out, the noise is unbearable, the congestion, the rowdiness.”
Last year, Lynda Mahaffey was on her porch on a Saturday morning when a man parked his car in front of her Highland Avenue house and told her he was off to the festival. “That car sat there all weekend,” Mahaffey says. “Monday, it was still there. Tuesday, it was still there. I called police. By Wednesday, they towed it away. Whether he got drunk and forgot where he parked, I don’t know.”
Ludwig used to enjoy ComFest. In fact, the former Columbus police officer worked the event when it was in the campus area. “It was a nice thing,” he says. But over the past five years, he and his wife, Leora, changed their views as the crowds became bigger and rowdier. “It’s gotten crazy,” Leora says. “People have lost complete control. It’s almost pagan the way they act.”
Over a cup of coffee at Spinelli’s Deli on Neil Avenue, John Palermini describes a similar change of heart. When he moved to Victorian Village about 13 years ago, he hosted ComFest cookouts and pool parties at his Buttles Avenue home for friends and co-workers. Now, he’s one of the neighborhood’s biggest ComFest foes. During past festivals, his car has been keyed, his fence damaged, beer bottles thrown into his pool and landscaping lights stolen. Once, a man passed out in his yard, and last year, he looked out his window one night and saw a couple having sex underneath some trees across the street. “Most of these people are coming from out of town,” he says. “They don’t care that there are homeowners around here. They’re here for a good time. They know there’s alcohol and drugs available at that festival, and that’s all they’re coming for.”
Since about 2005, Palermini has been voicing his concerns. He’s talked to reporters, neighborhood leaders, city officials, police officers, pretty much anyone who will listen. He’s long predicted that the toxic mix of drinking, drugs and big crowds would lead to tragedy. Then in 2009, Bryan Barbin, an 18-year-old Ohio University student from Columbus, stabbed himself to death in the middle of ComFest after taking four hits of acid.
ComFest has tried to keep a low profile since the 2009 festival ended. The top leaders declined to be interviewed for this story. “Every time an article comes out, it just brings more people in,” says Mendelson, the ComFest treasurer. Fisher, who resigned from his organizing role in March, says the leadership has followed a no-publicity strategy for several years as they became more concerned about the growing crowds. “They’re going to be upset that I’m talking to you,” he says.
Fisher says no one should blame ComFest for what happened to Barbin. “That kid could have done that anywhere,” he says. “And by actually doing it at ComFest, he got medical attention quicker than if he had chosen to do it anywhere but inside a hospital.” Barbin’s family also doesn’t appear to be angry at ComFest. “It’s been what it is for a long time,” says Barbin’s mother, Lyn Tolan-Barbin. “We don’t really see it as anything much to do with us.”
Still, Barbin bought the four liquid droplets of LSD for $20 from someone at the festival, a witness told police, according to an informational summary obtained by Columbus Monthly through a public records request. Open-air drug sales, obviously, are a much bigger concern to police than a bunch of friends sharing a joint on a beach blanket. (The witness didn’t say whether Barbin knew the man, described as a 5-foot-5 white guy in his 20s.)
What’s more, the stabbing caused a chain reaction that put an officer at risk, says Jim Gilbert, the president of the Columbus police union. While his colleagues were tied up at ComFest, an officer a couple of blocks away got in a fight with a suspect. He put out an officer-in-trouble call, but the closest backup was in the Bethel and Sawmill area on the northwest side. “That’s a big area to cover,” Gilbert says. The officer injured his knee in the struggle with the stoned ComFest reveler and missed several days of work, Gilbert says. “It brought to light that there should be additional resources available.”
ComFest seemed to agree and approached Columbus police with a plan late last year to double the number of special-duty officers it hires. The discussions did not go well. Organizers clashed with police over which officers would work the festival. The festival wanted the crew they’ve worked with for years, but police negotiators proposed opening the job to new faces. “We had a core group of special-duty officers that we worked with for years and years and years,” Fisher says. “They did a great job. They’re part of the reason ComFest has done so well with its safety and security.” New police chief Walter Distelzweig also raised eyebrows with his plan to appoint an “incident commander” for ComFest, as well as other festivals. During tense discussions, that relatively minor change added more doubt among organizers. “I don’t think folks were communicating as well as they should have,” says Antone White, spokesman for the Columbus Public Safety Department.
Behind the scenes, ComFest organizers talked about drastic measures, including canceling the festival or moving it, possibly to the Hocking Hills. “ComFest is full of a bunch of people with strong political views,” Fisher says. “They didn’t cotton to being pushed around by police.”
With discussions breaking down, ComFest turned to Fred Gittes, the civil rights attorney and longtime ComFest supporter. Gittes set up an early April meeting with top brass, including safety director Mitch Brown, chief Distelzweig and Mike Sexton, director of community affairs for Mayor Mike Coleman. The two sides hashed out their differences. The city agreed to let the veteran core of special-duty officers continue to work the festival, with the new hires for this year chosen on a first-come basis by the department. Meanwhile, police will boost the number of on-duty officers working the surrounding area, something the police union requested after last year’s festival. “I think this is going to be a safe event this year,” says Gilbert, the union president.
What remains a little murky is whether police will change their tactics inside ComFest. During the April meeting, the city promised a “nonconfrontational” approach at this year’s festival. White, the public safety spokesman who was at the meeting, says Distelzweig assured ComFest representatives that the department will treat the festival as it always has.
But does that mean officers will continue to look the other way at the reefer madness in Goodale Park? Maybe not. “We should not be overlooking any open drug use,” says Sgt. Rich Weiner, the Columbus police spokesman. “I don’t care what it is. If it’s illegal, it’s illegal. . . . [Special-duty officers] have a duty to enforce those laws. And if they’re afraid they might lose their special-duty job because they piss off promoters, then shame on them.”
Last year’s stabbing requires a response, Weiner says. “Somebody lost their life last year,” he says. “Was it somebody else taking a life? No. Did it have something to do with drug use? Allegedly. If that’s the case, we’ve got to go in there, and we got to set up enforcement. We’ve got to make sure it’s a safe event.”
These days, everyone seems to have an idea on how to fix ComFest. Petric, the music writer, suggests canceling it for a year to regroup and then cutting back to one stage. Others talk about moving to the downtown riverfront, charging for admission and even—gasp!—attracting corporate sponsors so beer sales aren’t the only revenue source. “It probably needs a relook, a rethink, a different structured environment, both physically and managerially,” says Mike Collins, the president of Promotions One, the private company that runs Red,
White & Boom!, the city’s biggest festival. “That’s not to criticize anybody.
That’s what happens when you get bigger.”
But lots of other people can’t imagine ComFest anywhere but at Goodale Park. “Part of why it’s so successful is that the park is so integrated into the Short North,” says Conte, the Victorian Village Commission chairman. Adds Fisher: “Goodale Park is so perfect. You can’t re-create that really anywhere else.”
Perhaps a better option is to spread the festival outside of the park. The Short North Business Association wants to move some ComFest acts to pocket parks along High Street. The shift might relieve the pressure on Goodale Park, as well as add foot traffic on High Street for Short North retailers. Christina Menges, the SNBA director before resigning in May, said ComFest organizers were considering the idea.
Fisher, meanwhile, is moving on. At first, he regretted his decision to resign. Now, he’s excited to begin a new chapter. He’s even found another musical project: starting a new festival in Columbus modeled after Austin’s famous South by Southwest (see “New kid on the block,” page 104).
He says he doesn’t hold any hard feelings toward his former colleagues, even though some of them requested that he get rid of his ComFest license plate after he resigned (he obliged). Fisher plans to attend as always and volunteer for a recycling shift. “I hope that I’m wrong and they’re right, and they’ve done the right thing,” he says.
Dave Ghose is an associate editor for Columbus Monthly.