OKEECHOBEE — Clifford Rosen was rumbling through a grove of oaks and sabal palms, one of many on his rural yet manicured 800-acre Okeechobee County estate, when four white-tailed deer bounced ahead of his ranch utility vehicle.
"We planned that," he told three reporters riding shotgun. "Woo! The deer work!"
The timing was indeed fortuitous. Rosen and his partners were ushering media from across Florida around the lush property that, starting Thursday, will host the inaugural Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival, an ambitious and well-funded experiment that aspires to become one of the biggest music festivals in the country, along the lines of mega-festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza.
Other new festivals have promised much the same thing, only to fizzle out quickly. But with a stable of resourceful organizers, an A-list lineup (Mumford and Sons, Kendrick Lamar, Robert Plant, Skrillex) and a one-of-a-kind setting — white-tailed deer and all — Okeechobee could, at long last, be the real deal. Already, its effects are rippling across the state and disrupting the concert industry in markets like Tampa Bay.
"We're going to have what I think is the best music venue in the country," said co-founder and chief creative officer Paul Peck, "and it's going to be here in Florida."
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Rosen, a Miami developer whose company has built dozens of shopping centers and buildings in Florida and beyond, purchased the Okeechobee site a decade ago.
He envisioned building a community around equestrian activities and sustainable living. He may still build homes or lodges there down the line. But for years now, it has basically been his family's "weekend retreat."
After accompanying his children to Tennessee's Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in 2013 and 2014, an idea clicked.
"When I saw Bonnaroo," he said, "and I actually saw the issues that they deal with, it made me realize, just from the land, we could put a superior thing together."
He connected with Steve Sybesma, a veteran promoter whose credits include jump-starting the amphitheater industry and bringing Western artists to China. Sybesma took one look at the property and saw its potential — wide, clean areas for the main stages; more secluded groves tucked away for side events and VIP camping; miles of footpaths and paved roadways.
"Photographs don't do it justice," Sybesma said.
Added Rosen: "No one has ever come here and not wanted to come back."
It's in a truly rural part of Florida, surrounded by farms and ranches and not far from the Okeechobee Correctional Institution. The festival will have four entry points to alleviate traffic from its two-lane entry road.
The town of Okeechobee, about 10 minutes south, doesn't even have a Starbucks.
"The theme of the event is this escape into nature — to be able to connect with music and art and real people and real life in real time," Peck said.
Prior to Okeechobee, Peck was a key producer at Bonnaroo. That event, which draws more than 80,000 fans per year, is Okeechobee's clear inspiration, in both the heft and diversity of its lineup, and also its free-spirited, return-to-Mother-Earth vibe.
Like Bonnaroo, Okeechobee will have 'round-the-clock non-musical activities — art galleries and interactive installations, yoga and meditation workshops, a tea lounge and a "healing sanctuary" with treatments like Thai massage and reflexology. Campers will be expected to dive in — literally, in the case of a man-made lake beach — and stay in.
First, however, they have to get there.
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The music festival industry has experienced huge growth over the past decade-plus. Some 32 million Americans attend at least one festival per year, according to Nielsen surveys, with a third hitting more.
The largest events are increasingly seen as cash cows by artists and organizers. Since 2013, promotions giant Live Nation has invested hundreds of millions in the companies that produce Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits and Las Vegas' Electric Daisy Carnival, among others.
But with more than 800 music festivals in North America alone, it has become harder for new events to stand out. Florida has seen rock festivals come and go — Orlando Calling, Langerado, DeLuna Fest, Bear Creek and Tampa's own Big Guava all died after just a few editions.
"Festivals in Florida have a storied history, and not all of them launch to great success," said Dan Larson, a marketing manager and talent buyer for Okeechobee, who worked for St. Augustine's defunct Harvest of Hope Festival. "That's not unique to Florida, though. That's something that happens worldwide."
Since it was announced in September, organizers have saturated the state with billboards and marketing. Sybesma estimates 70 percent of Okeechobee's crowd will come from within Florida. Orlando's the No. 1 target market, followed by Miami and Tampa Bay.
Shuttles will run on a loop all weekend from airports in Orlando and West Palm Beach. They've recruited more than 1,000 street-teamers and 300 college ambassadors to promote Okeechobee as not only a music event but also as a spring break destination. They're selling VIP packages priced up to $17,500.
It'll be a costly affair. Headliners like Mumford and Sons and Kendrick Lamar can command six-figure booking fees. Sybesma said the festival will require "a lot of infrastructure" — power generators, towers for cell and WiFi service, up to 3,000 volunteers, vendors, security and medical personnel. As with most first-year festivals, investors will face a steep uphill climb to come close to breaking even.
To protect the investment, Okeechobee's contracts largely restrict most artists from booking other shows around Florida. So-called "radius clauses" are common in the concert industry, and Peck said Okeechobee's are "much less imposing than other festivals of the same size."
Still, the fest has elbowed other markets out of the running for some tours. Acts like Robert Plant, Jason Isbell and the Avett Brothers were boxed out of potential shows with Ruth Eckerd Hall. Two Okeechobee acts, rappers Fetty Wap and Lil Dicky, were in talks to play WLLD-94.1-FM's annual Wild Splash concert on March 5 in Clearwater. Program director Orlando Davis said Lil Dicky renegotiated his contract with Okeechobee in order to play both events, but the fest wouldn't budge on Fetty Wap.
Particularly feeling the heat are other festivals. In January, Tampa's Big Guava Music Festival announced it was going on hiatus "due to an overabundance of returning and new festivals in Florida in 2016." Okeechobee wasn't specifically mentioned, but it was hard to ignore the implication.
Paul Davis, general manager of the Florida Strawberry Festival, said Okeechobee "took me out of a couple of acts this year. . . . There were two or three that I made offers to that they already had." And Phil Benito, Gasparilla Music Festival's programming director, said, "There were a couple of their higher mid-tier acts that essentially could have been headliners for us."
Okeechobee is aiming for a crowd of 30,000 this first year, but even if they fall short, organizers are already thinking about 2017. And Rosen hinted more festivals could be in the works.
"We've been so focused on getting this done," he said, "but I'm sure we're going to do lots of other smaller things, and maybe even another large thing."
Standing in Okeechobee's lodgelike base of operations, with a large portrait of Florida's own Jim Morrison overhead, Peck sounded excited about the festival's desire to "break the mold."
"There's always trepidation when you're approaching a new challenge," Peck said. "But we really felt like there was an opportunity to do it. We felt like it was a great community, and we thought we could really build something. If we do it the right way, we could be around for a long time."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.