Tampa Sports Authority to consider fate of Sunset Music Festival
The Tampa Sports Authority next month is scheduled to discuss the future of the Sunset Music Festival, the scene this spring of two ecstacy-related deaths and more than 50 ambulance runs to the hospital.
Sports authority president Eric Hart told the Tampa City Council this week the authority’s board plans a special meeting on Sept. 12 “to determine the future of the festival at the grounds” of Raymond James Stadium.
Alex Haynes, 22, of Melbourne, and Katie Bermudez, 21, of Kissimmee, died after attending the electronic dance music festival outside RayJay from May 28-29. Autopsies found Ecstasy, or MDMA, and a related drug, MDA, in the blood of both. Coroners determined their cause to death to be accidental drug abuse.
They were among 57 concertgoers who were transported by city and county rescue crews from the festival to hospitals.
At the meeting on Sept. 12, there will be no staff recommendation whether to continue or end the authority’s relationship with the festival, but rather a list of changes the authority would need from the promoter if the event goes on.
“It’s a policy decision whether we’re going to continue to do these types of events,” Hart said after his council presentation. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is not a member of the sports authority’s board, but he has already weighed in on the issue. If it were up to him, the festival — "not the type of event that Tampa wants to be known for" — would not return.
The two-day festival has taken place at Raymond James Stadium since 2012. This year, attendance was up 6 percent, to more than 51,000 concert-goers aged 18 and older.
Going into the festival, the authority worked with the promoter to reduce crowding by increasing the size of the event, adding shade and increasing staffing and facilities for medical emergencies, Hart said. The number of security guards was increased from 343 to 473, the number of off-duty police officers used rose from 186 to 199, and the number of off-duty emergency medical technicians went from 53 to 72. Three medical transport vehicles were added.
More than 15,000 free bottles of water were given away during the festival, more shade was provided this year and a 3,200-square-foot cooling “maze” allowed people to get out of the sun and cool down. Organizers brought in drug-sniffing dogs in an effort to keep illegal narcotics out of the event, provided no-questions-asked amnesty boxes for contraband and increased the number of spigots offering free water.
Still, heat plus drug abuse created an unexpected wave of medical emergencies. During the day, the off-duty EMTs paid through the authority to work the event could handle most of the problems.
But “this particular event did tax the city’s resources for individual home services somewhat during the peak hours towards the latter part of the event in the evening,” said Tampa Fire Rescue Rescue Chief Bryan Riley. “We were able to manage that, though, by moving some units around. Going forward, we are planning on a higher level of staff off-duty so that we don’t anticipate having to use on-duty crews to support that operation.”
Arrests at the festival dropped to a three-year low, but many of the arrests and citations were on charges involving MDMA, LSD and marijuana. The number of ambulance runs rose from 51 last year to 56 this year.
If the festival returns 10 months from now, Hart says the authority wants a bigger command center, better capabilities to make public announcements, better educational outreach to ticket-holders, more medical personnel, more water stations, cooling tents, shade and surveillance cameras, plus enhanced protocols to handle heat-related problems.
Another possibility is to bring in large cooling misters, known as "atmospheric chillers." The question, Hart said, is whether they would provide much relief in Florida’s high humidity.
Sports authority officials also are talking about reaching out for advice from their counterparts in Orlando, which has its own experience hosting electronic dance music festivals.