On the official website for the low desert city of Indio, the letter “I” is a cherry-red electric guitar propped up with a stack of amplifiers — a nod to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which has edged out the date shake as the town’s most famous homegrown product.
With Coachella’s 13th installment set to kick off Friday, Indio’s civic leaders are attempting to rebrand the once-sleepy exurb as “The City of Festivals,” an internationally known tourist destination.
Last week, after more than a year of debate, the City Council voted 4-0 to allow Goldenvoice, the concert promoter behind Coachella and its country-music offshoot, Stagecoach, to expand its offerings from three to five weekends a year through 2030.
Business leaders are delighted with the decision. The two festivals’ 214,000 concertgoers helped inject a robust $89.2 million into the local economy in 2012, according to a report prepared for the city.
But some locals are less than thrilled to be sharing their normally sedate desert oasis with a boisterous tribe of tattooed visitors known for their hard-partying gusto.
“Who would want to live in an area where debauchery is allowed five weekends per year?” asked one resident in a draft for an environmental impact report commissioned by Goldenvoice last year.
Even Indio City Councilman Sam Torres — who voted for the new agreement and calls it “a step in the right direction” — said the growth of Coachella has created a divide between dueling visions of Indio.
One is focused around the retirees and gated-community residents who relish the area’s resort amenities and slow pace of life, and another caters to music lovers’ yearly migration to the Empire Polo Club, Indio’s lush 133-acre venue where the festivals are staged.
And there’s a third element: 21% of residents live below the poverty line, according to recent Census Bureau estimates.
“You’ll immediately see the disparity of service between the polo grounds and the rest of the community,” said Torres. “We’ve neglected parts of the community.”
After spending nearly $8 million, Torres estimated, over the last five years on upgrades around the festival grounds, he added, “there’s not much left to improve sidewalks.”
Since 1999, Coachella has evolved into a beacon for cutting-edge performers and legacy acts alike, including Madonna, Paul McCartney and Jay-Z.
Last year the festival responded to years of sellout attendance by doubling capacity, showcasing the same musical lineup on back-to-back weekends. Goldenvoice introduced Stagecoach in 2008, hosting such country all-stars as Brad Paisley and Taylor Swift, and expanded from two to three days in 2012.
The festivals’ expansion has led to growing pains in Indio, and Goldenvoice executives have spent the last two years trying to win over locals who complain their quality of life has been compromised.
“We tried to get a dialogue with each person, face-to-face,” said Goldenvoice president and Coachella founder Paul Tollett.
The company’s vice president, Skip Paige, recalled one particularly fractious town hall meeting: “These really nice people looked at me and said, ‘You’re ruining my life. People are jumping my fences. People are riding my horses. People are swimming in my pools. For two weeks out of the year, you make it unbearable to live here.’ It was humbling.”
Goldenvoice spent $1.5 million to commission a thousand-plus-page environmental impact report laying out the sweep and scope of how the expanded festivals could affect traffic patterns, noise pollution — even migration patterns of the burrowing owl, a species known to nest on festival grounds.
With the new long-term agreement in place, Tollett said that Goldenvoice, which paved roads behind the main stage this year to help reduce dust, will more readily invest in improvements to the festival grounds.
The city-approved plan lays the groundwork for Goldenvoice to expand from three high-capacity yearly events to five. In addition to Coachella and Stagecoach, the promoter will be able to stage two additional festivals in the fall, one with a maximum capacity of 75,000 and the other 99,000 (maximum capacity is now capped at 95,000 for Coachella).
In turn, Goldenvoice has agreed to increase the per-ticket revenue it shares with the city beginning next year. For its upcoming 2013 festivals, the promoter is giving the city $2.33 per paid three-day festival pass, which this year costs $349. Starting in 2014, that figure will increase to $5.01 per pass sold, said Joe Lim, Indio’s planning manager.
Councilman Torres initially pushed for more. He wanted an additional $18 per ticket sold. Goldenvoice threatened to take Coachella elsewhere if the increased ticket tax came to a vote, and Torres backed down.
“Did we get everything? No, but I don’t feel it can be my way or the highway,” Torres said. “This is a working-class community and while we have a lot of retirees, the majority of the population is hard-working, blue-collar people. I have an obligation to soften the burden on the taxpayers.”
Gary Sims, managing director of the La Quinta Resort & Club and board member of the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, is happy to see more festival goers in Indio. The 800-room luxury resort near the polo grounds regularly sells out during Coachella and Stagecoach.
“You have four people to a room, some 3,000 people staying in the resort per day. And they don’t just stay in their rooms,” he said. “They go out to restaurants and bars and shops. That demand pushes all the way from Indian Wells into Palm Springs.”
But that isn’t much comfort for John Carrera, a 61-year-old property manager whose family has lived in Indio for five generations.
He fears that more resort hotel operators will meet increased tourist demand by building right on top of his land, just steps from the Empire Polo Club where Coachella takes place.
He praises Goldenvoice for hearing out his concerns, but still feels the city has made itself overly accommodating to the concert promoter, putting the festival ahead of locals’ concerns.
“This isn’t personal. It’s my peace and quiet we’re losing,” said Carrera. “We feel it’s just a matter of time before they start trying to move us out.”
Other residents, including many who submitted letters initially criticizing the festivals’ noise and congestion, have come around to support the city’s deal with Goldenvoice.
Kim Pollock, the president of the Desert Shores Motorcoach Resort, complained about Coachella concertgoers’ habit of leaving “trash and debris in our resort.” He backed the proposal, however, after Goldenvoice paid for damages to the resort’s fences and agreed to pay for extra security this year.
The promoter says it’s spending $50,000 to reimburse locals for security costs.
Still, Goldenvoice has not come through on one of Pollock’s other suggested solutions to alleviate resident complaints: a gift of complimentary tickets to each event by Goldenvoice.
Pollock laughed at the memory. “We tried,” he said. “It didn’t work.”