Organizers battle over Evel Knievel Days in Butte

2014-03-28T09:09:00Z 2014-04-22T11:17:06Z Organizers battle over Evel Knievel Days in ButteBy MIKE SMITH Montana Standard The Billings Gazette
March 28, 2014 9:09 am  • 

BUTTE — Evel Knievel Days is embroiled in disputes over control, management and continued naming rights that a top organizer says are a “mess” threatening to derail the three-day summer bash.

The event in late July, named after the world-famous daredevil and Butte native who died in 2007, has drawn thousands of visitors and their money to the city annually since its inception in 2002. The city-county backs it with tax dollars and other support.

“It’s in jeopardy at this point,” Chad Harrington, executive director of the Evel Knievel Days Organizing Committee, said Thursday when contacted by the Standard. “Our private group was told that we were mismanaging the event and the city was taking over. It’s a mess.”

Harrington said the criticism came from Chief Executive Matt Vincent, who wants a new agreement with Evel Days that outlines each side’s obligations and responsibilities for the event.

Vincent said individual agreements with Evel Days and other festivals that receive public money from the county are needed for accountability. Harrington said his group has no problem with that, but the issue of continued naming rights also is in play.

Kelly Knievel, who is Evel Knievel’s eldest son and owns the intellectual rights to his father’s name and image, said naming rights for the event need to be renewed and he wants that pact to be with Butte-Silver Bow, not the event committee as it has been in the past.

“It needs to be renewed and it needs to be through the city because the city is really the one that puts it on,” Kelly Knievel said.

Vincent is the city-county’s top official and his wife, Alicia, is Evel Kneivel’s daughter. That makes him Kelly Knievel’s brother-in-law.

Harrington said use of Evel Knievel’s name has been a matter between Kelly Knievel and the organizing committee since the daredevil died, but now “he wants to change that and have control between the city and himself.”

And that is coinciding with criticism and new demands from Vincent to the organizing group, he said.

“Our track record was criticized and it’s kind of a direct conflict of interest for the chief executive, who is married to a Knievel, to be directing what our private entity does,” Harrington said. “The city is not in the festival business, it’s in the festival-support business.”

Vincent said in this case and all others, he is only acting in the best interests of Butte-Silver Bow and it has nothing to do with his marriage and inherent family ties.

And it’s in the best interests of the county and accountability, he said, to have separate operating agreements with all the festivals that get public money and county support.

“We are moving forward to continue the investment in these festivals and this festival economy and we want to ensure that it is as accountable as anything else in local government,” Vincent said.

“As it relates to the agreement with Kelly, I’m not going to comment on that,” Vincent said. “My understanding is he is going to present that to commissioners because it is a contract with the city-county.”

There already is an agreement between the county and an alliance of festivals called the Butte Events Team. The groups include the Evel Days Committee, Main Street Uptown Butte and the Montana Gaelic Cultural Society. Events include the Montana Folk Festival and the An Ri Ra Irish folk festival.

The agreement says the groups and county benefit from events that attract tourists and create a multi-million dollar festival economy that boosts Butte’s cultural heritage.

It says the county helps by providing such things as fencing, staging, restroom facilities and garbage collection. The groups, in turn, are responsible for arranging entertainment and producing the events.

Vincent has tapped Parks and Recreation Director E. Jay Ellington as the new county point man for the festivals, and he and Vincent want separate agreements with each festival organizer.

Ellington said he told members of the Evel Days committee about the need for a new agreement Monday night, although its provisions had not yet been drafted.

“We are trying to build stability in several directions,” said Ellington, who moved from Virginia to become Butte’s park director in September.

It could entail stability in their volunteer workforce, Ellington said, which could include “writing job descriptions or having people in line to move up in the system.”

The county has been supplying such amenities as stages, trash cans, bleachers, street barricades, tables and chairs – all bought for the festivals – and some of those things will need to be replenished, he said.

The agreements should also include financial arrangements in the partnerships, he said.

“We are trying to get them in one package so we know what it is going to be each year so we can look out three or five years and they have stability,” Ellington said.

Planning Director Jon Sesso, who is a member of the Evel Days Committee, said he has been handling some liaison duties with the festivals. He said he backs Ellington heading that now and says separate pacts with the festivals is a sound move.

“That is where we want to go,” Sesso said. “That is smart business. It is formalizing what is already in the contract between BET (Butte Events Team) to be more forward-operating agreements with each entity.”

Sesso said he did not anticipate Ellington or Butte-Silver Bow “being draconian” in the content of the agreements. And the groups could choose to sign the pacts or not, he said.

According to an annual report on the “Butte Events Team” festivals, they collectively received $121,000 from Butte-Silver Bow last year through a mining trust fund and the Urban Revitalization Agency.

Evel Days got $16,776 from those sources last year, which was 9.7 percent of its nearly $173,000 in total expenditures. Butte-Silver Bow also gave Evel Days $25,000 from Superfund-related settlement trust funds.

“There are significant public dollars that go into these festivals,” Vincent said, adding they would become “standardized across the board” going forward.

That is what he told Evel Day organizers, he said, and it was up to them if they perceived it as criticism.

Harrington said the committee has documented all its expenses, and all transactions were in the county’s Butte Events Team report. The group has tried to stretch any public money it has gotten, he said, and everything has been above-board.

“We think we have done really well managing the event and so it was a really bad kick in the face to all these volunteers when the chief executive says we have done a bad job,” he said.

“We thought we were doing a good job and last year was the biggest year we have had and we had plans this year, and this is creating chaos.”

Butte-Silver Bow Commissioner Jim Fisher said he has tried to ease tensions among those involved in the disputes. He said the event organizers have done a great job ensuring the festival produces a good return on the county’s investment.

“I think Butte-Silver Bow might have overstepped its bounds on this,” he said.

Kelly Knievel said an agreement with the city over use of the name should be a simple matter.

“I like what the committee has done so far but it needs to be done on a more formal basis,” he said. “We like the event. We like everything going on with the event and it’s in our best interest and everyone’s interest to keep it moving forward.”

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