Mark Banta’s balancing act – hosting festivals and events in Piedmont Park

By Maria Saporta

For Mark Banta, leading the Piedmont Park Conservancy is as much an art as it is a science.

That statement is never truer than the weeks leading up to Music Midtown – a two-day festival that takes over Piedmont Park in September.

The 2015 edition of Music Midtown wrapped up on Saturday, Sept. 19 – the second year in a row of near-perfect weather for the two-day extravaganza of music – this year on four stages – the greatest number of stages since in the five years it has been in Piedmont Park.

As president and CEO of the Piedmont Park Conservancy since July 2014 and its interim leader since that January, Banta is as measured as they come.

Mark Banta

Mark Banta of the Piedmont Park Conservancy at Music Midtown on Saturday Sept. 19 – with his ear plugs hanging around his neck (Photo by David Luse)

During the two-day festival, Banta walked around wearing earplugs – barely paying attention to the music – spending his time studying the movement of crowds, the placement of vendors and the endless number of issues that come up when hosting a “Class A” music festival with an estimated 100,000 people over two days.

Piedmont Park hosts five “Class A” events a year – Music Midtown, the Peachtree Road Race, the Atlanta Jazz Festival, the Atlanta Dogwood Festival and the Gay Pride event. The Piedmont Park Conservancy also is allowed to hold a major annual event although it hasn’t in recent years.

But no festival is the lightning rod in the surrounding neighborhoods that is Music Midtown.

“There’s certainly a more vocal group related to Music Midtown,” Banta observed. “I think it’s because it’s a gated, ticketed event rather than a free event.”

Music Midtown Hozier

Crowds listen to Hozier on Friday – with “Super VIP” area in background (Photo by Maria Saporta)

But Banta said there actually are several issues intertwined in the discussions about Music Midtown and other events in Piedmont Park.

At the center is whether Piedmont Park should be more of a passive, community-centered park or an active, regional park with major events – and how does the city and the Conservancy strike the right balance between both.

On neighborhood websites, most grumbling seemed focused on the 10 days leading up to the event – disruption in the park with trucks and fencing combined with the closing of the 10th Street bike lane and sidewalk.

But Music Midtown also seems to be taking the heat for the City of Atlanta’s relaxed policy of allowing multiple “Class B” and “Class C” festivals have permits in Piedmont Park.

Banta, in an interview at the park on Sunday after Music Midtown, stated the obvious – 10 events with 20,000 people equal a crowd of 200,000. It is a rare weekend when Piedmont Park does not have one festival or another along with weddings or other events in rented venues – all bringing in cars and trucks – destroying the “no car” policy within Piedmont Park.

Music Midtown - Panic

People listen to Panic at the Disco on Saturday at the Belk Stage (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The Atlanta City Council now is looking into the city’s festival policy as it impacts Piedmont Park and other city parks.

One misconception is that the Piedmont Park Conservancy benefits financially from these festivals. The city gets the permit fees, and they end up in the general budget – not the parks budget.

Even Music Midtown, which pays the city a $400,000 permit fee, that money does not end up in the park. For the past two years, Music Midtown has donated $100,000 to the Piedmont Park Conservancy (partly to compensate it for lost business during the event), but there is no contract or guarantee for that donation.

Is there a more equitable way for the city’s parks to benefit when they host major events – perhaps dedicating the permit fees to the parks department? Or in Piedmont Park’s case, maybe the city could charge each vehicle entering the park’s gates. That would not only generate revenue, it would help it return to being for pedestrians more than cars (fining cars is my idea – not Banta’s).

But Banta does believe the public should have a better understanding of the issues involved. For example, the city requires event organizers to put the park back in the same or better condition than which they found it.

Music Midtown Lenny Kravitz

Performer Lenny Kravitz and his band were a high point during the Music Midtown weekend (Photo by Maria Saporta)

That’s easier for the bigger events that have professional managers, but it’s more difficult for the smaller events that often don’t have the resources, the knowledge or the skills to fulfill that commitment.

Banta, who used to be general manager of Centennial Olympic Park, also is a big believer in “best management practices.” The Piedmont Park Conservancy wants to work with all the festivals to minimize the disruption on the park and the surrounding communities.

Banta, a specialist in agriculture and turf during his days at the University of Georgia, said the real test will come during bad weather – like the Music Midtown of 2013 – before he had joined the Conservancy.

“What might appear to a lay person as the grounds being permanently ruined is rarely the case,” Banta said. “The time of year does make a big difference. The later the festivals, the tougher it is.”

Again, Banta is careful to not state an opinion but to state the facts.

When Live Nation initially announced Music Midtown 2015, the press release stated that a fourth stage would be located on the “Active Oval,” where the baseball and soccer fields are located.

Music Midtown X Ambassadors

The band X Ambassadors rock the crowd at the Honda Stage on Saturday (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The Piedmont Park Conservancy let both the city and the promoter know of their technical concerns of having a stage located on the Active Oval – a $2 million amenity that has a complex and fragile drainage system that was not designed for the weight of a festival and a stage.

“They decided not to use the Active Oval,” Banta said. “We are glad that decision was made. We stayed very factual and straight-forward about our concerns.”

Because the economy is improving, many festivals would like to expand their footprint. But Banta said the City of Atlanta’s festival ordinance does provide some level of protection.

Still, festivals – big and small – want to go to the park with the brand name – Piedmont Park – although there are several other wonderful parks throughout the city.

How does one decide which events get to go to Piedmont Park? How many festivals are too many? Is having a gated, ticketed event different than a free public event?

“I don’t know what all the answers are but I pledge to work with everybody to try to figure out what the answers,” Banta said. “Our job at the Conservancy is to try to be a facilitator. We are trying to balance all of these issues.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

16 replies
  1. SaportaReport says:

    Thanks Andrew Babb- we tagged the pages, but when you type Atlanta Gay Pride or Gay Pride Atlanta the events don’t auto populate, only the national Gay Pride interest page. Happy you shared this link!Report

    Reply
  2. CLB says:

    Thanks for writing this article. As a homeowner in the Virginia Highlands right off of Monroe Dr., it seems like the number festivals has increased significantly in the past 2 years as Piedmont Park becomes more and more of a “name brand.” It is interesting to see how the city and the park plan and operate these events, since a lot of the neighbors have to deal with the effects, particularly the parking.Report

    Reply
  3. ShaneSanders says:

    First, let me say that I have nothing but the utmost admiration
    for what the Piedmont Park Conservancy has done for the citizens of Atlanta
    with its amazing transformation of the park since the ’90s.  As someone
    who went to Grady High in the ’80s and has also consistently lived near the
    park since then, it is impossible to overstate what an incredible job they have
    done.  It’s a glorious place to spend time and I never lose sight of that.
    Mark
    Banta’s last statement quoted in this article is very important: “Our job
    at the Conservancy is to try to be a facilitator. We are trying to balance all
    of these issues.”
    I
    strongly disagree with his assertion that the Conservancy’s job is to “be
    a facilitator,” and here’s why.  The Conservancy is not supposed to
    be neutral.  Its mission and goals are clearly stated on its website…
    Mission: To enhance and preserve Piedmont Park as a
    vital urban green space and as a cultural and recreational resource that
    enhances the quality of life for all Atlantans.
    Goals:
    Improve accessibility to and within the Park- Restore and protect the Park’s
    natural environment and historic character- Enhance conditions for the
    safe enjoyment of the Park- Provide education and recreation programs
    for Park goers- Host volunteer activities in the Park
    Anyone who lives
    near Piedmont Park, and especially anyone who spends a considerable amount of
    time in the park on a regular basis, knows that Music Midtown directly violates
    every single one of these stated goals.Report

    Reply
  4. Shane Sanders says:

    First, let me say that I have nothing but the utmost admiration for what the Piedmont Park Conservancy has done for the citizens of Atlanta with its amazing transformation of the park since the ’90s. As someone who went to Grady High in the ’80s and has also consistently lived near the park since then, it is impossible to overstate what an incredible job they have done. It’s a glorious place to spend time and I never lose sight of that.
    Mark Banta’s last statement quoted in this article is very important: “Our job at the Conservancy is to try to be a facilitator. We are trying to balance all of these issues.”
    I strongly disagree with his assertion that the Conservancy’s job is to “be a facilitator,” and here’s why. The Conservancy is not supposed to be neutral. Its mission and goals are clearly stated on its website…
    Mission: To enhance and preserve Piedmont Park as a vital urban green space and as a cultural and recreational resource that enhances the quality of life for all Atlantans.
    Goals: Improve accessibility to and within the Park- Restore and protect the Park’s natural environment and historic character- Enhance conditions for the safe enjoyment of the Park- Provide education and recreation programs for Park goers- Host volunteer activities in the Park
    Anyone who lives near Piedmont Park, and especially anyone who spends a considerable amount of time in the park on a regular basis, knows that Music Midtown directly violates every single one of these stated goals.Report

    Reply
  5. JD Christy says:

    For many years,first as a member of the then Friends of Piedment Park, & later as a community rep.to the Conservancy from Virginia Highland, I have been an advocate of Piedmont Park.  As I see it, this is an issue of respect and care for this beautiful park.  Is this a park or a county/city festival grounds open to those who have the influence and cash to take over the public’s park for profit, (In some cases restricting public access for up to ten days to the area)?? This unfortunately seems to be a city rubber stamp  process. No one in this administration seems to listen to any discussion.  Atlanta needs a festival grounds for large events to take pressure off of this area.  We are selling the Civic Center property, Turner Field,  Fort Mac, but no mention of how these properties could be incorporated into this issue.  Why??Report

    Reply
  6. SteveHagen says:

    Thanks for this story.   I love parks of all descriptions.    After ten years of advocating for more parks in Miami which is the worst city in the US for park space per resident, I moved to Atlanta.   I pray Atlanta  leaders do not follow Miami leaders who sadly look at waterfront parks (there are few parks away from the water) as revenue producers, period. They totally ignore the passive purpose of parks..      

    It seems to me that the hardscape of Centennial Park is  better suited for large events especially with lots of music.    Isn’t there more off street parking in the Centennial area than Piedmont?  There certainly is more MARTA access.     Why isn’t that park being used more?  Are the trees not large enough yet?    

    To Atlanta’s credit there is the Piedmont Park Conservancy.    However, cities should fully fund the operation of parks and not depend on parks to contribute to general revenues.  I suggest revenues collected from park events be used only for capital improvements and additional landscaping in parks and their surrounding neighborhoods which do suffer from more traffic than a neighborhood without a large park… 

    As to the funding of parks, Piedmont and Centennial are used by people from all over the region.  Am I dreaming to think the Atlanta region could impose a property tax just for regional parks such as the State of Illinois.   Such a tax could eliminate the temptation to make parks revenue producers, the downfall of Miami polity and its major parks.      .Report

    Reply
  7. Dan says:

    I live near the park. I love having festivals at the park. In particular, I like Music Midtown – and have gone the last 4 years. But there are a number of outstanding issues with Music Midtown that greatly upset me (and many of my neighbors).
    First – as Ms. Saporta notes, many of us are upset by the lengthy setup and breakdown period. There are police all along the park, illegally keeping local residents from using the park. The permit for Music Midtown includes NON-EXCLUSIVE access to LiveNation for setup. But the way that it’s managed, there is heavy truck traffic, and security guards and police officers prevent residents from using the park at all. Further, to compound matters, by taking up the park, the sidewalk, and the bike lanes, there is nowhere for pedestrian traffic or bike traffic to go. While walking my infant in a stroller, I was forced to jaywalk through traffic multiple times by security officers.
    Second, as Ms. Saporta notes – the revenue for the city is $400k. The revenue for Piedmont Park is $100k. This is for 14 days of exclusive use of the park, for a festival with over 100,000 people, where tickets are over $125 each, not counting concessions. By my calculations, Music Midtown pays around 1% of revenue for exclusive access to the park for 2 weeks. This is absurd. At least this should be making the park and the city some real revenue!
    Third, while the park exists as a shared resource between the community and the city, the neighboring communities get little to no say in how the park is used; how the traffic is managed; how setup and breakdown are managed. If Mr. Banta were truly following best practices, the community would have much more input in how the park was used, and would not bear all the burdens of the festival without being compensated in any way.
    The other major festivals – Austin City Limits, etc. – have much better community relations than Music Midtown. Maybe they should look to what the other major festivals are doing and seek to improve their practices.Report

    Reply
  8. DebAz says:

    This is yet another reason why so many were upset with Ft Mac being handed over to Tyler Perry. The golf courses were supposed to be transformed into park space, space specifically big enough to host huge events like MM. AND it is between 2 MARTA stations and right off of 166 giving it far better access via public transit and interstate than you get at Piedmont Park.  Instead we give it away to Perry and talk about putting event space at the Quarry when it is finally developed. Never mind it has no access via train or interstate.Report

    Reply
  9. Tim says:

    I’m actually disapointed in Mark Banta’s response and his attitude toward donors/neighbors or at least the way it’s portraid in this article. Piedmont Park takes a beating during Music Midtown. No other event event comes close to same the negative impact. Even though Live Nation’s permit states that they must leave the park in the same condition they find it and pay for repairs, that’s impossible weeks before the lawns and other landscape go dormant (Banta admits the timing late in the season is a problem). Banta diminishes the very real concerns of neighbors/donors by saying their real issue is basically that they have to pay to get in and it’s gated. It’s not smart to insult your the donors, IMO.
    The Meadow was much, much nicer before Live Nation started MM in 2011. It’s been the PPC and our donations that have helped grow the park and restore the area after Live Nation is done (the $100K and buying some sod or mulch is a drop in the bucket against the hours worked by Conservancy in planning and work afteward). The Meadow and Oak Hill will be in shabby condition now until June, getting more muddy than they would otherwise during rains, since the lawns are in distress.
    There was a Parks Dept policy of no more than 10,000 on Oak Hill because of the type of soil there (clay I believe), until Live Nation requested it last year and you guessed it, they get 40K there now. Only serious PPC and donor pressure prevented LN from using the Active Oval this year after the city granted permission.
    We’ve had ideal weather the last two years. With extra stages and bigger crowds, the Park dodged a bullet compared to the heavy rains in 2011 and 2013, which was before Banta took over. I suspect some of the change in PPC attitude toward Live Nation (they hated Music Midtown just a couple years ago) is based on the resignation that the City is going to give Live Nation/Conlon just about anything they want. Limiting other festivals might be more realistic, politically.
    I’m all for festivals and I love live music at the Park (the Green Concerts were much more appropriate in size/nature). We should at least be honest with the very unique impact Live Nation’s for-profit event has on the condition of the Piedmont Park.Report

    Reply
  10. DebAz says:

    JD Christy The original plan for Ft Mac had a big chunk of it, like 100 acres, becoming park space that was designed for big events. But then Kasim gifted it to Perry.Report

    Reply
  11. BruceGarner says:

    I had several email “conversations with city council members, city of Atlanta staff and law enforcement leading up to this year’s Music Midtown.  I may as well have been banging my head against a concrete wall.  I got little if any response.  Two asked for my telephone number and said they would call me to discuss the issues and I am still waiting for a call!
     The fact that Music Midtown makes so much money is what galls me.  Taking public park space and restricting its use and allowing someone to make money from it is just plain wrong. Having lived 2 blocks from the park for 37 years I have seen it in all conditions.  What  does it take to get the city to

    .   Having lived 2
    blocks from the park for 37 years I have seen it in all conditions. 
    What  does it take to get the city to listen?
    My property taxes went up $500
    this year.Ordinarily I would not
    particularly mind, but when the city and its employees are so non-responsive to
    questions andinquiries, it irks me.
    They still have not addressed parking
    problems.The current plan only forces
    more vehicles onto streets south of 8th that have even less
    on-street parking.Expanding the
    restrictions on parking, at least for the event days would greatly ease the
    problems, but again, no one listens or seems to care.I guess as long as the promoter is a big
    contributor to Mayor Reeds political ambitions the citizens will have no voice.Report

    Reply
  12. MikeMorgan1 says:

    DebAz The Bankhead MARTA station sits at the southern end of the proposed Westside Quarry park and park plans call for eventual trail links to the Beltline and to the Silver Comet Trail.Report

    Reply
  13. MikeMorgan1 says:

    I cant really add to the existing comments except to suggest better Maintenance of Traffic (MOT) planning for the event. I live near the park and travel frequently by foot, bicycle and car to, through and around the park, as do thousands of other neighborhood residents. There should be a way to mobilize for the event without shutting down the 10th Street bike lane, which is quite heavily used, and completely eliminating bicycle through traffic in the park from north to south.Report

    Reply
  14. DebAz says:

    MikeMorgan1 DebAz That station is not right on the park, nor will it be and it is but one station serving one line. Ft Mac is bookended by 2 stations both of which serve 2 lines. And even if the Bankhead station was enough to MARTA access, the Quarry still lacks easy access to the Interstates which is crucial for these huge events that draw thousands from out of town.Report

    Reply

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