News Column

Connection Festival seeks to build upon One Spark success, but featuring First Coast performers

July 5, 2014

By Drew Dixon, The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville

July 05--A new festival is heading to downtown Jacksonville that seeks to capitalize on the success of the wildly popular One Spark festival in the spring, but its focus will be on the performing arts instead of commerce.

Connection Festival is Sept. 12-14 in the heart of the entertainment section of the city's urban core. Festival founder and event coordinator Joe Lezcano said organizers want to elevate local entertainers coupled with a few national and international acts mixed in.

"We had One Spark, which is a great event and made a big impact on Jacksonville," said Lezcano. "We kind of got the idea that Jacksonville is hungry for more events like that."

Shortly after the inaugural One Spark in April 2013, Lezcano said he and two other people started planning for Connection Festival. The group had a creator booth at One Spark this year running from April 9-13.

But One Spark was top heavy with business, entrepreneurs and startup enterprises with culture and music providing support. Connection Festival will be the inverse with music and culture serving as the driving force and commerce and technology being support features, Lezcano said.

The lineup of performers listed on connectionfestival.com is extensive with about 80 acts on the roster. There will be national and international acts performing, including the likes of Less Than Jake and Kermit Ruffins, among others. But the bulk of the performers will be local acts.

Where One Spark catered to startup businesses and crowdfunding support, Lezcano said Connection Festival is operating on a similar platform but for cultural development.

"We're giving them a platform to actually showcase their stuff," Lezcano said. "These guys are the end game."

The main stage will be set in a parking lot at the intersection of Main and Adams streets. That venue alone will hold about 5,000 people and will require the $55 ticket that provides access for the entire weekend.

But many of the local acts will be playing for free at local clubs in the downtown area known as the Elbow, within a few blocks of the St. Johns River and the Main Street Bridge. Those clubs include Underbelly, 1904 Music Hall and Burro Bar.

The Connection Festival footprint is much smaller than the 20-block template that One Spark operated on. But Connection Festival is much more concentrated on local talent.

The budgeting is also different. Lezcano said Connection Festival has a $98,000 budget, contrasted to One Spark which a $1.8 million operating budget this year and $1.3 million operating budget in 2013.

Michael Munz is a member of the One Spark board and partner at the Dalton Agency public relations and advertising firm downtown. He said he's "humbled" by the One Spark influence on Connection Festival.

"Their idea and their energy behind it is fantastic," Munz said Thursday. "There is a sense that we feel honored that anyone would give us that tilt of the hat. It's really reflective of the pride and honor of Jacksonville and the spirit we recognize from One Spark that is taking hold here."

There are considerable risks with formulating any new festival. Despite the huge success of One Spark drawing an estimated 260,000 people to downtown for the four-day event this year, organizers are still operating at a financial deficit that is being covered by financial backer Peter Rummell.

Lezcano said he's aware of those risks and has experienced them as a veteran concert promoter and band manager for about two decades.

Lezcano said the financial concerns are already being addressed. While Connection Festival already has multiple corporate sponsorship, Lezcano said the event also has a private financial backer, though he declined to disclose the name of that backer.

All the permits for the event have been secured, and there will be no tax dollar infusion into the Connection Festival. One Spark had about $50,000 of city tax money spent on sponsorships of the event.

The fact that Connection Festival is using the One Spark paradigm is already drawing attention from downtown Jacksonville business interests well before the event takes place.

Vince McCormack is the chairman of the Downtown Development Committee for the JAX Chamber and said the emergence of Connection Festival is key to capitalizing upon the momentum of a growing festival scene in downtown.

"I think it's absolutely critical," McCormack said. "I'm convinced that one of the key elements to being successful in downtown is to continue to have events that bring people downtown who wouldn't ordinarily come downtown."

While a majority of the artists will be local, McCormack said Connection Festival might develop into a draw well beyond Jacksonville, and it's not clear if the artists or the crowd will benefit the most.

"I assume this thing could morph in different directions," McCormack said. "Exposure to our local entertainment and local acts is very important. It gives them a better venue to communicate their brand and maybe take them to a different level on a more national basis."

Mayor Alvin Brown said Connection Festival is playing into the renewal of downtown culture. Brown said individual events such as One Spark or Connection Festival won't revitalize the urban core on their own. But repeated and sustained multiple events will change the cultural atmosphere.

"It's very important for the fabric of our community," Brown said, adding he'd like to see even more downtown festivals and block parties. "It's so important to continue on that momentum and excitement that something is happening downtown and that we're making downtown a destination, not just a pass-through."

The timing of Connection Festival also comes on the heels of what was an undeniably successful spring festival season downtown. University of North Florida Public Opinion Research Laboratory studies showed the significant economic impact of several downtown events.

Lezcano said it's not clear how many people Connection Festival can draw downtown. But this year's event is only the beginning.

Lezcano said Connection Festival's design is to have more than one city involved and the initial target is to involve San Juan, Puerto Rico, in simultaneous events next year with technology being used to share performances in the different locales.

In that sense, Connection Festival is also similar to One Spark which is already expanding to at least one other city -- Berlin, Germany, in September.

Munz acknowledged he's fascinated by the startup Connection Festival. But he advised organizers to muster as much tenacity and flexibility if they want to make it through the early stages and rise to the level of One Spark.

"With any startup organization it's important to have flexibility starting with the vision and the strategy," Munz said. "They are going to make mistakes just like we did.

"But being able to recognize what works, what needs tweaking in order to make it even more successful is probably the biggest takeaway that we or I could offer them," Munz said.

Drew Dixon: (904) 359-4098

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(c)2014 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

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Source: Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, FL)


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