CHARLESTOWN — The Town Council, voting 3-1, has granted what it calls “tentative approval” to concert promoter Frank Russo to explore the possibility of having one or more large concerts each summer at Ninigret Park. Council President Thomas Gentz and councilors Paula Andersen and George Tremblay voted in favor of the approval. Councilor Lisa DiBello abstained, saying she did not have enough information, and Daniel Slattery voted no.
Gentz explained that council approval was necessary for Russo to begin talking seriously with prospective performers.
“If he approaches somebody and says ‘Here’s the date. Can you make it?’ and they say yes, then he doesn’t want to come back and have the council say no. And that gives him the opportunity to move ahead,” he said.
Russo, a Rhode Islander and the owner of Creative Entertainment, has been in the music business for 43 years and has produced concerts featuring Elvis Presley, Andrea Bocelli and the Rolling Stones. He told the council on Monday that if he could attract a big name act to Ninigret, he envisioned a kind of music festival comprising several acts over a single day or weekend. Russo assured councilors that there would be no heavy metal bands or electronic dance music. He also asked the council to approve 2,000 camping spaces, which Gentz reduced to 1,500 before members voted on the proposal.
Charlestown receives $9,000 per event at Ninigret, and it would receive the same amount from Russo, who said he was hoping to establish a long-term relationship with the town.
“I envision that we put on an event or two next summer, and if everyone’s happy and it’s successful, then I would proceed with doing more events the following year and so forth,” he said.
Russo, a Florida resident who spends summers in Rhode Island, said he and his family go to the Big Apple circus every year at Ninigret Park. He said that it was during a visit in July that he began thinking of the park as a possible concert venue.
“I liked the site. I liked the access-egress area, and to the extent that it complies with what I need to do to be able to put on an event, which I believe it does, then I can contact a few artists to see what their level of interest is,” he said.
Charlestown owns Ninigret Park, which comprises 227 acres off Route 1. The town has 55 acres that it can use at it chooses, and the rest of the park, also owned by the town, is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge. The town and the wildlife service have a memorandum of understanding that stipulates that the town must notify refuge managers if it is planning activities on its 55-acre parcel.
With the refuge closed during to the government shutdown, the town has not yet been able to discuss the concert with managers there.
Planning Commission Chairwoman Ruth Platner expressed reservations about granting any sort of approval to Russo’s proposal until the refuge manager had been consulted. She said she also wondered about the intent of the approval.
“Who knows what they mean? It means something to the concert promoter. It’s not clear that they have a contract or if he’s vested in some way. I don’t know,” she said.
Councilor Daniel Slattery said he still had too many questions to feel comfortable about endorsing the proposed concert.
“I’d like to hear the [police] chief’s version comparing what Mr. Russo is suggesting with his professional experience, whether he thinks it would work or not. I’d like to get a better handle on the camping. What are we talking about? Tents, campers, people, where? The stage. Noise. I’m not saying I’m against it or in favor, and I might be willing to work with a one-time concert to see how this works as an experiment, but I can certainly hear and appreciate all the other comments that have been made tonight. Not everyone is for expanding major concerts in the park.”
The popular Rhythm and Roots festival attracts about 5,000 people per day over three days for a total of 15,000. Russo is hoping to attract much larger audiences: 15,000 people for a single event. People living near the park told the council they were worried about traffic, lights and noise.
“There’s too many variables on all of this,” said Donna Chambers, who lives on Partridge Run. “I don’t get a sense this will be good for Charlestown.”
Andersen reminded residents that not everyone liked the idea of the Rhythm and Roots festival when it was first proposed 16 years ago, and noted that most tourists who visit Charlestown want more than the beach.
“Charlestown is a tourist town,” she said. “I was the director of the chamber for 12 years, and I will tell you that people came into town, and they weren’t just looking for the beach, and they weren’t just looking for a place to go sit under a shady tree and read a book. ...They were all looking for ‘what goes on in Charlestown? What can we do besides go to the beach?’ ... As Mr. Russo said, this might just be a daytime concert. We’re always going to have some noise.”
Gentz said Russo would have to appear before the council again before he could start putting together a show.
“He will have to come back and solidify all the things — the police, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, because it is right on their border, and all those things need to be in order for the event to go on. It’s an opportunity for us to partner together with him to see if it’s going to work or not,” he said.
Russo cautioned that it was too soon to tell whether any big name performers would even be interested in coming to Ninigret.
“There is absolutely no guarantee at all that there’ll be any interest,” he said. “I don’t have any idea of if an artist is interested in coming to Charleston, Rhode Island, or not. Not until I try it.”