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Originally published: 2012-10-08 14:43:25
Last modified: 2012-10-08 14:43:25

ALE, outside deputies ‘own entity’ during Gnarnia

Town of Beech Mountain held a special public meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 26, to review the events leading up to and during the recent cultural arts concert and festival Gnarnia.
Mayor Rick Owen introduced the meeting, emphasizing that the function of the meeting was strictly informational, giving town authorities an opportunity to explain what took place not only during the festival, but in the months leading up to the festival that came to Beech Mountain Thursday through Saturday, Aug. 9 to 11. 

Owen emphasized that no vote or decision regarding future festivals of any kind would be made at the meeting.

First to describe his account of the festival was Beech Mountain Police Chief Jay Hefner, who began by describing the process of planning arrangements in coordination with festival promoter Bowie Van Ling. 

According to Hefner, the planning process was immediately compressed because the first meeting between town staff and Van Ling did not take place until April 17, only 113 days before the festival was scheduled to begin.

The festival promoters provided incomplete and inconsistent information throughout the process, Hefner said, noting frequent changes in crucial aspects of security, such as number of security officers and the providing company, from the promoters.

Hefner answered a question that was at the forefront of many concerns about the events of Gnarnia, namely, the high presence of law enforcement from ALE and local sheriff’s offices. “They were their own entity,” Hefner said.

According to Hefner, ALE agent Joe Buchanan contacted his department in order to inform him that ALE would be on hand. The ALE decision, Hefner said, was based on profiling done through Internet research by ALE agents trained to identify potential drug-use hotspots, a standard procedure.

“It was not anything dramatic or out of the way,” Hefner said.

Hefner said that Beech Mountain did appeal to Avery and Watauga sheriff’s offices for assistance, but only in the form of traffic control, for which they requested two officers from each county for the three days of the festival. The sheriff’s granted that request. The additional law enforcement presence from nearby sheriffs was only included when officers saw the situation that unfolded and called for additional support.

Hefner said that Beech Mountain Police made no arrests and issued no fines during the event, though they did respond to disturbance calls, including one to Van Ling’s rented residence.

Hefner also commented on the quantity and variety of illicit drugs seized at the festival, which far exceeded anything he had encountered in his experience on Beech Mountain. 

“The sheer amount of drugs caught us all off guard,” said Heffner. 

Beech Mountain Fire Chief Bob Pudney also gave his account of the planning process. Pudney served as incident commander during the event, coordinating all efforts of emergency services throughout the festival. Pudney pointed at the festival promoters for a lack of planning and coordination throughout the process.

“For months we could get no information from the promoter,” said Pudney, who also noted the insufficient medical resources the promoter provided for inside the festival, which he said consisted of little more than band-aids and saline solution. This deficit of medical care was not brought to the town’s attention until the festival’s opening day. As a result, Avery and Watauga emergency services responded to every medical call during the event. 

According to Pudney, the failure in communication was wholly on the part of the promoter, not on the part of Beech Mountain Resort, which handled the indoor events during the festival.

“The resort cooperated fully in the planning process,” said Pudney.

According to Pudney, all of the information and planning that the promoters had compiled was lost only 42 days before the festival was slated to begin.

Both Hefner and Pudney emphasized that, despite the lack of communication and planning from the promoter, emergency medical services was successful, as no lives were lost during the festival. The real concern, according to both Hefner and Pudney was that ensuring the safety of the festivalgoers consumed all of the resources at their disposal, leaving no ambulances or personnel to respond to any call that may have come from elsewhere in the county.

“I was sending fire engines to cover overdose calls,” said Pudney, noting that no resources remained for other incidents. “We could not have responded adequately to a serious medical call. We put the community at risk because we exceeded the capabilities of our local resources.”

Owen continued the meeting by running down some of the financial benefits of the festival, which included record increases for August in occupancy taxes and other gains. The gains, Owen added, would not cover the costs to the town in overtime for officers from Beech Mountain and Avery County, as well as other costs following the festival. The total, according to Owen, is still being calculated, but is likely to exceed $25,000. According to Owen, Town of Beech Mountain plans to take action to recoup those losses from Van Ling. 

Members of the community provided some comments at the end of the meetings, suggesting measures that could be taken in the future to prevent negligence on the part of festival promoters. Suggestions included placing future promoters under a performance bond based on supplying information promptly and attending meetings. Beech Mountain resident Lee Whitman spoke in support of Hefner, Pudney and the rest of Beech Mountain’s public servants.

“They did everything they were supposed to do, plus some,” said Whitman.