New Times - Broward-Palm Beach
July 1, 2010
Deerfield Beach's 2010 Mango Festival: How a Disaster Blew Up
By Thomas Francis
Once upon a time, the Mango Festival was a signature event for the city of Deerfield Beach. At its pinnacle in 2005, performers like R&B legend Keith Sweat graced the stage, and a whopping 60,000 attendees strolled through the gates.
But times have changed. At the 2010 Mango Festival, which began Saturday, June 19, the big-name performers didn't show up; nor did the audience. Vendors who cooked for big crowds were left with huge debts and rotting food. After the sound guy left in a huff and the festival was abruptly canceled Sunday morning, city officials and event organizers engaged in heated rounds of finger-pointing that may ultimately be resolved by the courts.
This isn't the first Mango Festival to raise questions of fraud. Attendance and revenues have declined since 2005, and the last time the festival was staged, in June 2008, it needed handsome subsidies from the city to break even. That year, city commissioners authorized $165,000 of taxpayer money to keep the festival alive. But when it was over, event organizers including Terry Scott reported that only 3,000 people had attended. They reported only $18,000 in ticket sales.
That figure seemed fishy to some. Eyewitnesses who had attended - including Deerfield Beach Mayor Peggy Noland and a lieutenant with the Broward Sheriff's Office - told New Times last year that there had been far more than 3,000 attendees, perhaps several times that number.
Thus, there should have been far more than $18,000 collected at the Mango gate - and that money should have either gone back to the city, saved for the next festival, or put toward scholarships for college-bound Deerfield Beach students.
Since hiring a corruption-wary city manager last January, Deerfield Beach has taken a closer look at spending. In April the city retained a forensic auditor, Kessler International, to examine the Mango Festival finances, among others. That review is ongoing.
But since city officials had no proof of mismanagement in past Mango Festivals, they agreed to let it be held again in 2010.
This year's Mango Festival was supposed to be different. The event was to be run by Don and Norris Wiggins, cousins from Weston who seemed to be political outsiders and had not been involved in past festivals. They touted industry relationships that could bring major R&B acts to the festival.
From her place on the dais, Commissioner Sylvia Poitier championed the festival, assuming an informal position as a leader of its nonprofit committee; her daughter even sold Mango tickets out of the family's dry cleaning business. This time, however, the city commission voted to kick in only $25,000 worth of expenses.
As plans for the festival took shape, organizers gave different attendance projections to different parties. In promotional material, the Wigginses told event sponsors and food vendors that the June 19-20 event would attract some 40,000 people. But when talking to the city or to the Broward Sheriff's Office security detail, the Wigginses predicted a much smaller event: only about 3,500 people.
Turns out, both figures were wildly exaggerated. The actual crowd was so small that one vendor, Tim Foster, vice president of Red Smith Foods, who was all set to peddle Big John's Pickled Sausage, could nearly do a head count: He says there were "about 115" attendees on Saturday, "maybe 120 at the peak." He stayed at the site until 8:30 Saturday night. Still, it wasn't until the following day, after the Mango Festival's sound system failed, that the event was canceled and put out of its misery. It left ticket-holders, contractors, vendors, sponsors, and performers feeling cheated.
While it's not unusual for music and food festivals to go bust, they rarely do so in such spectacular, suspicious fashion as the 2010 Mango. An investigation revealed that there had been plenty of warning signs prior to the event' s implosion.
As June arrived, there were rumors of discord between the Wigginses, who were getting paid to run the event, and the nonprofit committee, comprised of community activists who were supposed to help organize it and who had been involved in past Mango Festivals.
On June 9, Norris Wiggins incorporated a for-profit company, The Mango Festival, LLC. Prospective vendors and sponsors were then told to make their payments to the Mango Festival - the for-profit entity - rather than to the nonprofit Carl Nixon Mango Festival.
Given past festivals, Wiggins may have had good reason to steer money away from the committee. But the Wigginses definitely developed credibility problems of their own when they claimed on the Mango Festival's website that the Broward Sheriff's Office was sponsoring the event, which wasn't true. The website offered other ominous clues: On it, the dates of the festival were not even posted until about a week out; and even though it was billed as a two-day festival, performers' scheduled times were listed as "To Be Announced."
A week before the Mango was to begin, there came an even more devastating blow to the festival's prospects: A $12,500 check to the production company, Lonnie Ferguson Events, bounced. Ferguson told the Wigginses to make that check good or his company would abandon the festival.
Suspense was building as promoters paid Ferguson in small increments - a $3,000 payment one day, then the same amount the next, followed by a $4,000 payment. But the money wasn't coming fast enough.
"We were ready to go for a show Saturday," says Ferguson. "We were begging for the money. They said it was going to come Saturday morning."
The promoters' failure to pay was a clear sign to Ferguson that they had failed to sell enough tickets or sponsorships in advance of the show to pay for expenses on the front end. That meant they would struggle even more mightily to pay expenses on the back end.
According to Ferguson, the promoters were also having trouble paying an ambitious lineup of R&B and jazz performers. Although posters for the Mango Festival promised to deliver a performance from the singer Monica on Saturday, a check of her schedule revealed she was booked for Atlanta that day and couldn't be in South Florida till Sunday.
In yet another demonstration of the abysmal planning, organizers had not gathered volunteers to set up chairs, handle trash, and guide cars to parking lots. On virtually every front, the festival was doomed.
But organizers pressed ahead. "As far as putting on a successful show, we've done so," a cheerful Norris Wiggins told New Times three days before the festival was to begin.
But by the time Saturday arrived, the production company and its subcontractors were understandably skittish. They wouldn't settle for just $12,500 - half the $25,000 fee for the event. Rather, they wanted the full balance in advance.
Ferguson gave organizers till 1 p.m. Saturday. Then he gave them till 2:30. The money never materialized. With that, Ferguson's company unplugged its equipment and walked away from the festival.
Those few music fans who did pay the $75 fee for a VIP wristband, or the $35 fee for general admission, were furious. From his Big John's Pickled Sausage booth, Tim Foster phoned his brother Jon with a prediction: "There's going to be a riot."
But the Fosters and other vendors had even more cause to riot than the crowd. To set up and sell food at the event, vendors had paid festival organizers a fee of either $900 or $1,500. They had been given promotional materials by the Wigginses that showed huge crowds and told of past festivals that attracted 40,000. Accordingly, the vendors cooked for thousands - but on Saturday they were looking at mere dozens.
Vendors with perishable food had no choice but to pitch it in the trash. "It was horrible to watch all the food these people cooked go to waste," said Tim Foster. The Fosters have since been contacted about forming a class with other festival vendors to sue the festival for losses.
Incredibly, Saturday's disaster still didn't convince Mango organizers to cancel the event for Sunday. They had managed to find a new sound company, which would accept a credit card payment in lieu of cash. But a shower on Saturday night ruined some of that equipment, causing the sound check to fail Sunday. Mercifully, that provided the coup de grace to the 2010 Mango.
In the days after the festival, Norris Wiggins blamed its failure on one unreasonable production company and on the bad luck of that Saturday rain.
According to Ferguson himself, the festival organizers had neglected to pay the artists, some of whom were refusing to leave their hotels. So even if the Mango had had a stage, lights, and sound, there wouldn't have been a performance.
Asked to compare the Mango experience to other events, Ferguson said, "I've never run into something like this."
On June 21, the Monday after the festival, Deerfield Beach commissioners called a special meeting to discuss the debacle.
Commissioner Sylvia Poitier blamed the festival's failure on poor planning by the city's parks department and the city manager. She asked that the commission atone for the city's failures by granting the festival a second chance this summer.
Commissioner Bill Ganz's response: "Either you people are clueless, you're liars, or you're thieves. You take your pick."
That triggered Poitier's temper. She accused the city of plotting to sabotage an event on racial grounds. "Why do you got to treat black people that way?" she yelled from across the dais at Ganz.
Noland later called the claim by Poitier "sad," and Ganz called Poitier "an embarrassment to the city and to the commission."
Race, he said, had nothing to do with the Mango Festival's demise. "If color does come into it, then it's all green."