For over seventeen years now, the small charming town of Manchester, Tennessee has played the role of a gracious host to our favorite music festival.  Composed of just over 10,000 residents and made up of just fourteen square miles, the city of Manchester grows in size by at least 60,000 more temporary residents every June as Bonnaroo comes to town.

It’s a very unique arrangement that went from a relatively impromptu jam on a farm to a clockwork machine of a music festival.  While the first year or two presented enormous traffic challenges within the framework of a small town along the interstate, the festival has become a logistical miracle in the past decade due to the cooperation between Bonnaroo organizers and local officials in both Manchester and Coffee County.

This kind of cooperation had been formalized early on in Bonnaroo’s lifetime by an agreement and contract first reached between festival organizers and local government in 2006.  Under the most recent terms of this deal, Bonnaroo had donated $3 per ticket, as well as $30,000 to county government.  Multiply that three dollars by an average of around 70,000 attendees and Bonnaroo’s total contribution to local resources equates to around a quarter of a million dollars per year.

This is in addition to the Bonnaroo Works Fund, an effort which focuses on charitable causes in the local area.  The Works Fund has donated a large amount per grant to organizations like Manchester Parks & Recreation, the Manchester Coffee County Conference Center, the Coffee County Board of Education, and dozens of other local causes.  Over the years, their total in grants have equated to around seven million dollars in distributed funding to the local community.

In short, Bonnaroo has been nothing but charitable to the local area by putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to their mantra of radiating positivity.  Just take a drive through the city streets of Manchester, and the benefit that Bonnaroo has brought to the small southern town is readily apparent.

Bonnaroo Mural
Bonnaroo Mural at Manchester Parks & Recreations – Photo from TNVacation.com

After 2017’s Bonnaroo, the prior agreement between the festival and local government had reached the end of its term, and representatives would enter into negotiations for the new version.  As representatives of Bonnaroo entered into these talks, they began to make their future plans for the festival site more clear.

As talks began at the end of that Summer, Bonnaroo representatives would bring proposals to Coffee County Budget and Finance Committee meetings that included the possibility of additional future events to be held at Great Stage Park, the Farm that Bonnaroo is held on.  The prior version of the agreement mentioned only Bonnaroo as the event that would be held at Great Stage Park, so updates would need to be made to the agreement to accommodate other events.

Another major change proposed by Bonnaroo to the agreement would be the implementation of a Great Stage Park Tourism Advisory Council.  This Council would theoretically be in charge of making recommendations regarding the use of funding that Bonnaroo distributes to local government.  It’s been indicated that Bonnaroo would like to have a little more say in where the annual $250,000+ of funding goes to, which may of course include upgrades to allow for events in addition to Bonnaroo.

The new bathroom facilities and the water line furnishing them that were first introduced in 2016 have been the first of many new such improvements.  Additional upgrades like the new barns in the campground in 2018 have shown that Bonnaroo is committed to deepening their investment in this regard. Further improvements that have been discussed include the widening of Bushy Branch and Ragsdale Roads outside the Farm, as well as a possible connection to Manchester’s sewer line to reduce the need for portapotties and waste trucks.

City of Manchester Mayor Lonnie Norman with the Roo Bus in June 2018

However, there’s been a problem in making this all happen.  The talks that started with Coffee County nearly a year ago have stalled ever since then.  The Tennessean reported in November of last year that a contract was nearing completion, but no further progress would be reported for months.

Bonnaroo signed a stop-gap agreement with local officials days before the beginning of the 2018 event, which would assist local officials with a one time $205,000 donation that covered shortfalls within the Coffee County budget.  The Manchester Times noted that these “shortfalls (were) created by the county’s inclusion of Bonnaroo funds in its FY18 budget, despite the expiration of its contract with the festival.”  This stop-gap agreement would cover the 2018 event, but negotiations would continue to carry on afterwards.

We’ve spoken with local Manchester residents and officials that have mentioned that much of the reason for the can being kicked down the road had been the upcoming municipal elections that are quickly approaching on August 2nd.  Other factors have also recently come into the conversation, including the potential annexation of Great Stage Park into Manchester City Limits so that the festival is more closely aligned with the City as opposed to the County.

We’ve also learned a few other important details about the possibility of the Farm’s annexation.  Many Bonnaroovians have expressed concerns that a larger city presence would bring about big changes to the event itself, but we’ve learned that this won’t be the case.  

First, many have worried that an annexation into Manchester would mean significantly increased property taxes to the Farm, but there’s an important detail that will keep this from being the case.  

Great Stage Park enjoys a “Greenbelt Status,” which in part grants the property a significant cut in property taxes.  We’ve learned that under a theoretical annexation into Manchester, this Greenbelt Status would still apply and that any increased property taxes would be largely insignificant.  In short, we’re told that Bonnaroo would pay only a fractional increase that’s largely inconsequential.

Also, some Bonnaroo attendees have also noted in the online discussion surrounding these details that they have a concern that an inclusion into city limits would mean an earlier curfew or a vastly increased police presence.  

Late Nights would reportedly continue unimpeded under the Farm’s annexation.

We’ve learned that no such curfew would take place, and that there’s no expectation that Manchester City Police presence would become any larger than it already has been in recent years.  

We’ve come to understand that the City is already working towards changing existing curfews and making other arrangements so that events at an annexed Farm would continue wholly as they have been for years.

The annexation detail is a development that could come very soon, or it could come a bit later on.  At this point it’s tough to say. But we have learned that there is a general expectation that the overall renewed agreement should be coming very soon.  Perhaps even within the upcoming few weeks before the upcoming municipal elections on August 2nd.

If this timeline were to take place, we’ve learned that the current plan is for the introduction of the long rumored Country Music Festival at Great Stage Park in the Fall of 2019 or at some point in 2020.

Both Bonnaroo’s cooperation with the CMA Fest in changing their date in order to accommodate the prior conflict, as well as their working relationship with the Grand Ole Opry in 2018, seems to indicate that they’re laying down the foundation for this to take place.  But for this to happen, the long delayed agreement has to be finalized.

Our take is that a completed and renewed agreement would be beneficial to all parties involved.

This not only includes Bonnaroo officials and local government, but more importantly the fans and residents.  The widening of Bushy Branch road would greatly alleviate traffic headaches and entrance times. Additional events would mean more revenue for both Bonnaroo and for local Manchester businesses.  An improved infrastructure would both provide accessibility for fans, but also help Great Stage Park become a long-lasting source of revenue for the local community.

As demonstrated by their $205,000 budget shortfall without a deal in place, local county government has become increasingly dependent upon Bonnaroo’s annual funding to their wallet.  If a three dollar fee per ticket for one event can provide such an enormous contribution to local budgets, certainly additional events have the very feasible possibility of increasing that contribution by a significant degree.

We also can’t let this story go by without detailing what it would mean to our family of Bonnaroovians:

For the most part it won’t mean much at all, as this is largely composed of a lot of behind the scenes details and paperwork.  There will be hardly any visible change whatsoever to attendees. For example, as we noted, it does not sound like we have to worry about any supposed curfew at all.

Representatives we’ve spoken with that are close with the City of Manchester have spoken very highly of Bonnaroo. They are fully aware of the huge economic impact that it brings to their town, and aside from making sure that their citizens are taken care of and that Bonnaroo itself has a beneficial business relationship, there is tremendous care for the fans that come every June as well.  We are very encouraged to hear from our conversations with them that an abundance of thought is being placed into continuing the Bonnaroo experience that we’ve all grown to know and love.

If anything, the deal coming soon should be a big big net positive for everyone, as it will ultimately equate to better funding and better facilities.  For example, a widened Bushy Branch Road would make entrance and exit times an absolute breeze. It’s always possible that the cost of additional facilities could be passed on to attendees in the same way that the newly introduced car camping pass was just a few short years ago, but as you might suspect, it’s really too soon to say.

We expect to see far more movement on this in the coming weeks, and are looking forward to seeing the future of our favorite festival further cemented after a positive deal for everyone is finally inked.


Header Photo Credit: Andrew Jorgensen from Bonnaroo Media

The Other Photo Credit: Nathan Zucker from Bonnaroo Media

Our thanks to Jay Hojenksi of The Bonnarooster for some collaboration in this piece.