Ghosts were playing on the streets of Sunshine Grove, a beautiful residential development north of Lake Okeechobee, more than 800 acres of old-oak woods, grassy fields and lakes and six miles of gently winding roads lined by great stretches of carefully landscaped nothingness. Not a home in sight.
So on a recent winter afternoon, sunny and cool, there were no bikers to be seen, no joggers, no dog walkers, no kids. But it didn't take much to conjure them in the imagination, to see the original dream that developer Cliff Rosen had when he cleared the land, built the lakes and paved the roads more than a decade ago.
"I wanted to have a lot of homes here," says Rosen, CEO of Miami-based Rosen Associates Development, mentioning that he also owns an adjacent 400 acres dedicated to organic farming. "I wanted to have that kind of community, a holistic atmosphere, but the economy kind of faltered."
That was 2006, when the housing market was in free fall. He put his dream on hold, and kept a large wooden lodge on the property as a weekend retreat for himself, his adult daughter and two adult sons. He didn't give up. He kept cutting the grass.
"This is the best music festival site I've ever seen," says Paul Peck, standing just outside the lodge. "I think this is going to be the best concert site in the country."
Peck, who booked and managed the famed Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival for more than a dozen years, has a dream for Sunshine Grove, too. It's called the Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival, and next weekend it will bring some of the top stars in rock, hip-hop and electronic music to Rosen's bucolic community that wasn't. Among the headliners will be Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar, Robert Plant, British rockers Mumford & Sons and pop stylist Skrillex, joined by nearly 100 other acts.
Peck expects roughly 30,000 fans at the March 4-6 camping festival, located about 10 miles north of Lake Okeechobee, 60 miles from West Palm Beach and a bit more than 100 miles from Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. They'll pitch tents, hunker down in trailers and kick back in luxury RVs. Wireless companies plan to boost Wi-Fi service in the area. Woodstock this is not.
Music to their ears (and eyes)
It was Rosen, after research trips to well-known events in California (the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival) and Tennessee (Bonnaroo) who developed the idea that his property might make a good place for a music festival that had the holistic vibe he was looking for. It took a couple of years of permits and public hearings to change the zoning to resort activity status.
A stranger to the music industry, Rosen put the word out and, in what he calls a moment of divine grace, discovered that his lawyer worked in the same Miami firm with the daughter of Steve Sybesma, a veteran promoter living in China while producing Shanghai's massive STORM Electronic Music Festival.
Believing he had something unique to share, Rosen persuaded Sybesma into spending his last day in the U.S. before a flight back to China by making the trek from his home in Indianapolis to Lake Okeechobee to see Sunshine Grove.
Shortly after seeing the land, Sybesma was on the phone to Peck, who came down and immediately decided to trade his job with Bonnaroo for the potential he saw at Sunshine Grove. Rosen, Sybesma, Peck and festival management veteran Jim Tobin (Bonnaroo, Hangout) soon created a company called Soundslinger to manage the Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival out of offices in Miami.
So what is the big deal about this place?
Peck, a 30-something New Yorker, says the allure is simple, but something Florida natives take for granted: "It's one of those places that no matter where you're standing, you just kind of look and zone out about how beautiful it looks from that vantage point. And you want to remember that exact spot so you can come back to it. But then, it feels like that all over."
Sybesma is more practical: "The road system is perfect for camping. Nobody in America has that kind of road system."
Excavators and cranes
Soundslinger has spent more than two years preparing the site, creating clearings for the three main stages separated by forests of moss-shrouded oaks and neatly trimmed palms through which trails lead to campsites, a sandy beach and a remote clearing called Jungle 51, where all-night electronic dance parties are scheduled. Five wells have been dug for showers.
By day, the festival also will offer art installations, yoga, meditation and holistic workshops. By night, the woods will glow with dramatic lighting. Unplanned visits from deer and gangs of large sandhill cranes also can be expected.
Food concessions will use all biofriendly, compostable material, Peck says, and he calls the team that Tobin has assembled to deal with trash and recycling the best in the industry.
Soundslinger put a cap on first-year attendance for the festival at 30,000, and this week ticket sales were trending toward that goal, according to a festival spokeswoman. Admission is $259.50 (plus fees) for a Friday-Sunday pass at OkeechobeeFest.com.
In an attempt to alleviate traffic issues — there will be two entrances off Northeast 120th Street, a two-lane road that borders Sunshine Grove — the festival gates will open on Thursday, March 3, when the Miami-based Spam Allstars and sacred steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier are among a limited number of performers scheduled. A four-day pass costs $279.50 (plus fees). There are no plans to offer single-day tickets.
Peck says Soundslinger is determined to make Okeechobee a signature annual event, and not only for Floridians. Just this week, the music lineup got another major addition with the news that Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello will join the March 6 festival-closing set by Mumford & Sons.
"We are building something special, not only with the music, but creating a crazy, escape-from-reality kind of experience that will make it one of the best music festivals in the world," Peck says.
The company declined to reveal how much money has been spent on talent or the development of the site, but Sybesma said it is "significant."
'A good move'
Veteran South Florida producer and performer Andrew Yeomanson, best known as DJ Le Spam of the Spam Allstars, is encouraged by what he sees. The Spam Allstars will offer a set of their funky, Latin-flavored electronics at Okeechobee at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
"It's a good move. Since Langerado fell apart, we haven't had any kind of top-tier festival in the southern part of the state," Yeomanson says.
The multiday Langerado Music Festival, which booked the likes of R.E.M., My Morning Jacket, Death Cab for Cutie, the Flaming Lips, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, has been a cautionary tale for festival organizers since its six-year run ended in 2008 in a train wreck of disorganization.
For many Langerado fans, its demise was hastened by a move from camping-friendly locales such as Markham Park in Sunrise and Big Cypress Indian Reservation to downtown Miami. The 2009 festival, planned for Miami's Bayfront Park with a lineup that included Snoop Dogg, Thievery Corporation and Public Enemy, was canceled, with ticket sales reportedly lagging. An attempt to resurrect the festival at Markham Park in 2011 also failed.
The Spam Allstars performed at every edition of Langerado, and have played the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, the Sasquatch Festival in Northern California and the Montreal Jazz Festival. Yeomanson believes the Okeechobee Music Festival, led by organizers with backgrounds at major festivals, is positioned for success.
"They're smart guys, they know what they're doing, they have the resources," he says. "Judging by the buzz, people are going to jump right on this. I wouldn't be surprised in two, three to five years that it's a big deal down here for all of us."