by Whatsblem the Pro
There’s just a hint of mayhem in the story behind what shouldn’t be a terribly noteworthy change of plans for the fourth annual Forgotten City festival this year.
The event is the Las Vegas Burning Man Regional‘s yearly Memorial Day weekend outing. A month ago, the usual suspects in organizing Forgotten City announced that the event would not take place in 2013, due to a new baby in the family.
“I was actually looking at a site in Pahrump, Nevada for something else at the time,” says Dirk Schmidhofer, the organizer who has taken on the task of keeping Forgotten City’s fire lit this year. “I started calling it St. Elmo’s Fire, but too many people thought of the TV show, and of Sesame Street. Damian was mentoring me then, and I asked if I could use the Forgotten City name. He said ‘Sure, and here’s all my website stuff, too.’”
With the Las Vegas Regional in his corner, Schmidhofer sought a permit for the event in Pahrump, Nevada, a small and economically-challenged town about fifty miles west of Las Vegas.
On March 1st, 2013, Selwyn Harris wrote an article in the Pahrump Valley Times about the Pahrump Town Board approving plans for FC4 to be the inaugural event at the new Pahrump Fairgrounds. Town Board members voted 5-0 to approve the event, but waited for a contract review from the town’s attorney before giving the official go-ahead.
On March 8th, just one week later, Selwyn Harris wrote another article, entitled “Mini Burning Man Event up in Smoke.”
“We went back to the previous location,” says Schmidhofer. “Bootleg Canyon near Boulder City, Nevada. Boulder City Parks and Recreation has permitted Forgotten City the last two years, so they know the organization; we obtained a permit as we had done in previous years, and we’re selling tickets as we speak for Memorial Day Weekend.”
The Pahrump Fairgrounds, it turns out, are a bit unfinished.
“They just bladed off 27 acres,” Schmidhofer told me. “They put in a very large asphalt parking lot at one end. It’s a brand new fairgrounds and they’re doing it as they get money; they are working on more funding, and want to put in soccer fields and so on.”
In order for Forgotten City 4 to burn in Pahrump, Nye County wanted Schmidhofer to either pave the fairgrounds, or lay down a two-inch bed of gravel wherever there would be vehicles parked.
“I was actually planning on renting a water truck, a la Burning Man,” says Schmidhofer, but according to the County, “water is not considered a dust palliative for the purposes of complying with that law.”
And then, according to a press release from Pahrump’s town manager, Bill Kohbarger, “A Nye County Sheriff’s Office representative contacted Burning Man advising them that everyone who gave away alcohol needed to obtain a liquor permit through their office.”
Meanwhile, Schmidhofer was taking a drubbing from citizen attendees in town board meetings over things that seemed to make no sense.
“Although we felt we were there with plenty of time, some felt we were springing this event on them. Others thought I was trying to skirt the process, even though I had spoken with everyone I could find or get a recommendation to talk to. I missed a face-to-face with the town manager, and they really zeroed in on that. He didn’t seem to mind though. Someone was upset because they thought we had the tickets printed up already; I guess they’re still in the 20th century there. What we have is a website created by the founder of Forgotten City a couple of years ago; a few minor changes, and it’s ready to sell tickets online — everything is e-commerce, but they didn’t understand that.”
According to Schmidhofer, the town board meeting attendees seemed to ignore the fact that the group had done this event before, and already had fully-developed and tested plans for security, fire safety, EMS, etc. “One person specifically said at the microphone that twelve weeks was not enough. . . but I had been working with the fire chief on all of it, and he even vouched for us at the meeting.”
Reader comments on the related articles in the Pahrump Valley Times were worse than vitriolic. One Pahrump local logged in as “Desert Cat” called the abortive festival at the fairgrounds “your little Burning Man freak show” and exulted over the cancellation: “Best of days for Pahrump. You see, we succeeded in putting a stop to an event that would have drawn the likes of you and yours to our town.”
In the end, it’s hard to say what went wrong. The Pahrump town board seemed willing enough, but was Nye County angling for Burning Man to surface their new fairgrounds for free, and even pay for the privilege? Were they simply trying to keep the festival out? Was it just a few cranky conservatives among the locals, making waves?
Schmidhofer’s take on it is that the town board was genuinely on his side: “The Pahrump town board chairman and the town manager were both quite upset about the situation. It is a pretty depressed locale economically, and they were trying to bring a little revenue into the community.”
Burning Man itself has come under quite a lot of recent scrutiny in Nevada as a cash cow by lawmakers and local governments looking for more teats to suckle in hard economic times. It’s not hard to imagine a beleaguered town board being hamstrung by a greedy County killing off the goose that might lay a few much-needed golden eggs.
John Pawlak, a burner who lives in Pahrump, had this to say about the reaction of his neighbors to the plan to bring Forgotten City to their rural hamlet:
“It seems ironic that certain individuals in this town can demonize and prejudge the folks at the Regional Burning Man group who were asked to come to our town at our request and then define them as homosexuals, nudists, drug addicts, hedonists and so forth. Are we blind when we in fact have all of those traits and more as a community, but we choose to hide those facts from the general public? Maybe we don’t have the nudism, but we have our brothels, swingers’ club, drug addicts, meth labs, plus we carry guns. We continue to slam shut the door on change here in town. If we are to make this a better place to live, we’re going to have to start someplace. We constantly complain of nothing to do here and when something or someone comes knocking at our door to begin the process, we shut it in their face.”