Organizers for several prominent South by Southwest week events, who had planned to file applications by a previously announced Feb. 5 deadline, were sent scrambling by an early cutoff this week. On Jan. 7, the city of Austin released a statement on special event permits during spring break, the week of the South by Southwest Music Festival. The statement noted that the deadline for applications was Feb. 5 at 5 p.m. It also said the city has set an application cap of 120 events this year. An internal memo from William Manno, the city of Austin’s special events program manager, sent out Tuesday, Feb. 2, at 6 p.m. and provided to the Statesman by Jennifer Houlihan of Austin Music People on Thursday, announced that the city had reached the event application cap.
Among those caught in the lurch is the South by Southwest Music Festival itself. Festival organizers failed to get in the permit application for St. David’s Church. The downtown church has hosted popular SXSW showcases for years, including capacity shows from Fort Worth soul sensation Leon Bridges and French Cuban sister duo Ibeyi in 2015.
“(The application for) St. David’s church was 24 hours late (or 24 hours early based on the published February 5 deadline depending on how you look at it),” SXSW organizers said Friday morning.
Also caught up was South by San Jose. At this point the permit for the long-running free, family-friendly event that takes place each year in the parking lot of Jo’s Coffee and the Hotel San Jose is up in the air, as it was turned in after the Tuesday cutoff.
“The city has always told us we’ve been exemplary in how we’ve engaged in the permitting process, and we’ve held this event for 16 years,” Isadora McKeon from Hotel San Jose said Friday afternoon.
Since the event has such a long history, McKeon said she didn’t feel a sense of urgency about the permit application beyond the need to get it in by the Feb. 5 deadline. “(It was) certainly not conveyed that they were reaching the maximum number (of permits),” she said. “That information seems almost impossible to find anywhere and in fact the city’s website continued to accept permit applications after their apparent internal cutoff decision.”
The early cutoff also could lead the to cancellation of a planned 65th birthday party for Austin honky tonk hero Ray Benson. Local advertising agency GSD&M was planning to host the party along with their annual SXSW interactive affair and a celebration of the long-running Austin television show “Austin City Limits.”
“If the city really wants to cancel Ray’s 65th birthday I’m sure it might bring a few tears to some people’s eyes,” David Rockwood from GSD&M said on Friday.
A few years back, David Rockwood from GSD&M says his company was the “poster child” for South by Southwest permitting done right. City officials hosted a press conference on the company’s lawn to talk about the process. “GSD&M has always submitted our permit and the application and our layout map of the event and the fire department has always thought we did exactly what we tell them,” he said. “They never have an issue with our event so they thought we’d be a great location to talk about their role in permitting and things like that.”
Alicia Dean, a spokeswoman for the city, said Austin Center of Events staff understands that this is a “new process for everybody.”
“It’s a work in progress,” she said Friday afternoon, “but we had to start somewhere.” With the growth of the festival over the last several years, Dean said, “we couldn’t continue to process applications in the same way.”
The primary question the city has been grappling with is, “How can we ensure the overall safety and security of all of our residents and visitors who like to enjoy all these events,” she said. Making sure the Austin Center of Events has proper time to properly vet all the applications was key.
Dean says the city has been actively trying to communicate the new application cap through press releases and messaging within the event planning community. “We’re going to do our best to cap it at 120, so please don’t wait til Feb 5 to get your completed application in,” has been the message all along, she said.
A press release from the Austin Center of Events on Jan. 27 announced plans to curb permits issued during the week of South by Southwest by 25 percent this year. “Based on the volume of permit applications already received for events during this time period, ACE staff anticipates it will stop accepting applications in early February,” it said. “The early cut-off will give staff adequate time to thoroughly review each application for compliance with safety, traffic and sound requirements.”
Despite missing the application cutoff, Dean indicated there is a chance some event planners who filed their applications before the Friday deadline might get permitted. “I do know that there is an effort to work with everyone as best as we can, particularly the legacy events here, with promoters we’re familiar with and events we’re familiar with,” she said.
McKeon feels the city should take a more comprehensive approach to the permit application process especially in light of the recent talk about the negative impact of some corporate-sponsored parties with no direct ties to the Austin community.
“We’re people who live here all the time so we’re very conscious of the impact of our event on the community and we feel that it has tremendous value,” McKeon said. “We benefit local charities, we benefit local small businesses, we benefit local musicians.”
On Friday morning, SXSW organizers said they were working with the city to see if there is a resolution to the St. David’s situation.
McKeon said her event is also looking for a resolution. “We’ve been told by some people that they won’t accept our application, but we are continuing to engage on all levels,” she said.
Rockwood said he hasn’t heard from the city beyond a note that the permitting has been shut off. He said he went ahead and submitted all his permits anyway.