Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival Draws 30,000

For one weekend, the population of Okeechobee County swelled by more than 30,000.

Music lovers –- and everything that comes with them -- flocked to the Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival, which is the largest event to hit the county in recent memory, officials said.

And despite the unusual influx of people, organizers and officials said things went smoothly.

“I couldn’t be more pleased and excited,” festival co-founder Paul Peck said. “There was a fantastic energy on-site all weekend as one great moment led to another. The Okeechobee community is an extraordinary one. We can’t wait to do this again next year.”

Organizers of the three-day music festival said early estimates show they sold at least 30,000 tickets.

County officials overseeing police and safety at the festival said they also thought things went smoothly. Okeechobee County Fire Rescue Chief Ralph Franklin said of all the people treated at the festival, only 14 had to be transported to area hospitals.

About 30,000 people attended the inaugural camping festival this past March, about 10 miles north of Lake Okeechobee. The festival featured nearly 100 acts, including Kendrick Lamar, Robert Plant, and Hall and Oates, in addition to an all-night electronica tent, art installations and yoga workshops.

Of those 14, none was seriously injured or in critical condition.

He said the organizers of the festival worked closely with his team to make sure everyone was safe. He added that the organizers also footed the bill for the county to lend their services.

“It turned out to be what I anticipated, as far as transports [to the hospital] were concerned,” Franklin said. “I think everything went well. It was well planned and organized.”

The county’s fire rescue worked with a private company called ParaDocs Worldwide, an emergency medical service that specializes in large events, including music festivals.

The Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival comes to life at night. Hula hoops, clothing, shoes and even the Ferris wheel are all lit up.

CEO and founder Alex Pollak said they provide emergency medical technicians and hire local doctors to oversee any medical issues that do not require transport to the hospital.

The company, which also does New York Fashion Week, tries to treat people and let them go back to enjoy the festival without fear of being arrested.

“We want to make sure everyone is safe,” he said.

Most of the calls received by police and emergency crews were drug-related. Pollak said typically about 1 to 2 percent of attendees come to the medical tent at some point for a possible drug-related issue. While he wouldn’t give exact numbers, he said his staff was pleasantly surprised at how few patients they saw.

“More people came to have fun. That’s the takeaway,” he said. “There are so many activities to enjoy here for the crowd. It’s more than just standing in front of a stage high on drugs.”

According to the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office, from Thursday afternoon when the gates opened to Monday morning, about 70 people were arrested.

The bulk of those arrests happened between Thursday and Friday as festivalgoers started filing into the venue. About 36 people were arrested in that time frame alone, deputies said, and a number of drugs were confiscated as people filed into the campsites.

According to Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Michele Bell, if the amount of drugs confiscated were at a misdemeanor level, deputies took the drugs without giving a citation.

She said those arrested had heroin, LSD, ecstasy, flakka, cocaine and methamphetamines. She added that everyone they came in contact with acted in a respectful way.

Some in attendance thought law-enforcement searches were excessive, especially when it came to arresting people who had drugs such as marijuana.

“I understand why [they’re searching], but it seems like a lot,” said David Wilson, 21, of Naples.

The transformation of the 800 acres just east of the city of Okeechobee into a full-blown music festival is the work of organizers and a team of vendors.

Craig Floyd, of Fahntoosh Enterprises, a company that specializes in Americans With Disability Act compliance and large-scale music festivals, said he didn’t know what to expect from a first-year festival, but came away wanting to come back next year.

“Okeechobee has been first-rate,” he said. “I think they stumbled onto something that they could really grow here.”

He’s not the only one hoping to come back next year. Many pledged to return if the festival decides to go on for another year.

Eddie Zamora, 34, and Kevin Dixon, 42, both of Fort Lauderdale, are already planning their trip.

“It was a great variety of artists,” Dixon said. “Some older legends and newer artists, as well. They really rounded it out.”

The two said they frequent music festivals across the country, and now that one is shaping up just two hours from home, they couldn’t be more excited.

“There’s nothing like this anywhere else in Florida,” Dixon said. “It couldn’t have been better.”

kjacobson@sunsentinel.com, 561-243-6547 or Twitter @katejacobson

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