According to the U.S. Census, there are about 40,000 humans residing in Okeechobee County. Interestingly, there are 65,000 head of cattle residing there too, meaning that in this vast, rural county just north of the lake that lends it its name, “there are literally more cows here than people,” says Susan Giddings, Chamber of Commerce vice president.
But for one weekend in March, the humans will give the cow population a run for its money.
During the inaugural Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival on March 4-6., the festival will bring acts like Mumford and Sons, Kendrick Lamar, Skrillex, Robert Plant, Hall and Oates, the Avett Brothers, Grace Potter, Miguel, Jason Isbell, Deer Tick, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Ween to this remote area. Organizers anticipate 30,000 concert goers, 2,500 volunteers and countless press, crew and others.
It’s hard to imagine that Sunshine Grove, this 800-acre mass of green and quiet where the festival is centered, will soon transform into a major festival that organizers hope will compete with major national musical events such as California’s Coachella and Tennessee’s Bonnaroo.
Among the lush groves of 100-year-old trees, which property owner and co-producer Clifford Rosen accurately describes as having a “Jurassic Park feel,” festivalgoers will find several stages, a yoga village, a beach and an all-night electronica party.
“This property is the most beautiful site in America,” says organizer Paul Peck, who was wooed away from Bonnaroo, where he’d been since the beginning.
“It’s gonna be really special out there to have a naturalistic experience. It’s not a city festival. People will be there for days, breathe the fresh air and be there in the same place at the same time, a temporary community. I was blown away (by) how exceptionally, unbelieveably beautiful it was (with) tons of trees and grass and shaded areas and pathways to explore.”
Peck isn’t the only industry vet lured to this out-of-the-way oasis, about a 90-minute drive from West Palm Beach, with visions of festival excellence in their minds.
So was Steve Sybesma, who like Peck and Rosen, is a Miami real estate developer who originally bought the property in 2005 to build on it commercially, but kept it as a getaway for his family. He is a co-founder of production company Soundslinger. The promoter was producing concerts in China when he was asked to consider moving back stateside specifically to make the Okeechobee festival happen.
Because it’s the first year, the Okeechobee team is limiting the audience to 30,000, creating a “more intimate experience.” They’ve also limited the space to just 500 of the 800 acres of the property. They’re fairly cagey about the budget, including the money spent on artists and otherwise, but “it’s a lot,” Sybesma says.
An advance three-day pass starts at a base price of $249.50, with three-day RV parking at another $225. “Ticket (sales) are good,” says Sybesma.
In conversation with the producers, the word you’ll probably hear most often is “curated,” a concept traditionally used for visual art galleries but lately used to describe everything from cocktail menus to music festivals. That means careful editing and selection of the whole experience from the lineup to the vendors to what the stages look like, Peck says.
Okeechobee itself was an important part of that curation. The Speckled Perch Capital of the World would not seem the most obvious place to hold a festival that organizers are cultivating as a go-to spot on the annual musical calendar.
But the remoteness fit the requirements of being central, “in striking distance to all of the state,” as well as “the place to be in March for beautiful weather,” Peck says. March also lends itself to being ideal for college spring breakers, a targeted demographic for the music and festival culture, as well as for camping.
Of course, the 40,000 humans who reside in Okeechobee, and the ones like Rosen who drive for hours from their everyday urban enclaves to vacation there, do so because of its rural feel and relative low population. Giddings, of the county Chamber of Commerce, who also publishes “Okeechobee The Magazine,” acknowledges that “the only people concerned about the noise and traffic are those in the immediate area.”
But now, “everyone has embraced it, and is excited about” the possibility of showing off Okeechobee to newcomers lured by the music but possibly seduced into a return visit by the natural beauty “and what a great community we have here,” Giddings says.
And then there’s the financial possibilities of revenue, from gas, to beer, to the virtually sold-out hotel rooms. Between the festival and the upcoming nearby Guy Harvey Outpost Resort and Marina, “we’re over the moon for the prospects for our community.”
Peck says that the festival’s acts were intentionally chosen “for a wide audience, something for everyone. There’s both stuff you love and some things you like just enough that it might completely redefine what kinds of music you like. You might meet a new friend for life, or discover a new band for life.”
The festival is also featuring a competition for Florida-based acts to claim a slot on the lineup, in recognition that “each area has its own scene and artists that are supporting it and are bubbling up. We’re doing this not only to encourage that, but to nurture that and provide a platform for them to have a bigger stage to play on.”
One of Peck’s signatures at Bonnaroo was the SuperJam, a “once-in-a-lifetime” musical experience offering collaboration between featured bands for a one-night-only show, becoming a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” affair. It’s coming to Okeechobee as well, this time headlining singer Miguel and a still-evolving collection of collaborators that Peck promises will be memorable.
Also like other big national festivals, Okeechobee expects that most attendees will be camping on site, not only because the relatively few hotel and motel rooms in the area are mostly long gone, but because it’s part of the culture. Rosen says possibilities are available around the site and in every iteration, from tents pitched behind cars to RVs to a super-fancy “glamping” experience.
The emphasis on camping means that a lot of the attendees won’t be coming in and out of the venue much over the course of the weekend. Still, navigating such a remote location seems rife with traffic and access issues. There are two public entrances to the festival, one of which will offer 16 different lanes with security, to get people in and out efficiently, Sybesma says.
Although the goal is to keep things intimate this year, organizers believe that the Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival will one day be a destination.
“I fell in love with this property,” Peck says. “It’s almost too good to be true.”