Lilac Festival promoter withdraws from event

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Longtime Lilac Festival promoter Jeff Springut has withdrawn from the event, the Rochester Beacon has learned.

Organizer of the spring festival for more than a decade, Springut says his event-production company, the Springut Group Inc., still plans to produce Party in the Park and other events in Monroe County, but is done with the Lilac Festival. He cites no specific reasons for deciding to withdraw.

“I’ve done the Lilac Festival for 12 years. We’ve had a great run, but now it’s time to move on,” Springut says.

County officials maintain that Springut’s pullout will not affect the 2024 Lilac Festival.

Lilac festival in 2016 (Photo by Janis Hyland)

“We are well underway with our planning and critical items that will make this event successful,” Bello administration spokesperson Gary Walker said in a statement.

Lilac Festival Inc. board chair Don Jeffries, who heads Visit Rochester as well as LFI, a nonprofit created to help promote the Lilac Festival, could not immediately be reached for comment.

“I don’t believe the county will let the Lilac Festival fail,” says County Legislator Rachel Barnhart.   

Still, Barnhart adds, some infusion of public funds could be needed to pull off the event without Springut’s expertise. Barnhart cites Springut’s pullout as promoter of the Park Avenue Festival, which, she believes, contributed to that annual event’s current moribund state.

Springut withdrew as promoter of the Park Avenue Festival in 2019. It was subsequently called off because of the pandemic. But since then, neighborhood organizers’ attempts to revive the popular street fair have not been successful.

Barnhart concedes that the pandemic was partly to blame. But while other COVID-canceled events have resumed, organizers of the Park Avenue Festival have been stymied by an inability to find a promoter willing to take on the weekend-long event.

Springut’s plans and methods for running the Park Avenue Festival are proprietary and were not made available to possible successors, Barnhart explains. Without access to those plans, promoters were unwilling to agree to run the festival without a $30,000 to $50,000 cash advance, sums beyond neighborhood organizers’ reach.

Springut says he has not passed on plans, contracts with vendors or performers or other information concerning his running of the Lilac Festival to the county. Nevertheless, he maintains, the county has “a good handle on it. I’m sure it will be fine. The lilacs will bloom.” 

Last year, at Barnhart’s and fellow county lawmaker Linda Hasman’s urging, the county created a mechanism for events that meet certain criteria to apply for public money.

As operator of an event that encourages tourism, a Lilac Festival promoter could be eligible for public money under the county’s festival-funding program.  

A promoter of the 10-day Lilac Festival, which involves booking dozens of music acts and scores of vendors, has many more moving parts to pull together than a promoter of the weekend-long Park Avenue event and is likely to need more upfront cash than was needed by potential Park Avenue Festival promoters.

Possibly, in anticipation of a need for expenses of that level, the county’s festival-funding program calls for minimum grants of $200,000 of public money to help fund eligible events.

To mount a 2024 Lilac Festival, Walker says, the county is working with two unidentified “seasoned pros with long histories with the (Lilac) festival.” He does not say whether those individuals are acting as independent contractors or in some other capacity more directly tied to the county or to Lilac Festival Inc.

As it has been mounted for more than a decade, the Lilac Festival traces to the county’s mid-1990s decision to turn over planning and organizing of the festival to promoter James LeBeau.

Prior to LeBeau’s handling of the festival, the Monroe County Parks Department directly ran a relatively low-key event featuring fewer vendors and music acts. Performances featured the  Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, school choirs and acoustic performers like a strolling lute player. In deciding to hire a promoter, the county cited expenses it was no longer willing to bear.

LeBeau, a onetime Eastman Kodak Co. real estate official with ambitions of becoming a music and event promoter, obtained contracts with the city of Rochester to run Frontier Field as well as Monroe County contracts to produce the Lilac Festival and the Monroe County Air Show.

LeBeau’s tenure in all those ventures ended in 2012 after workers at Frontier Field and the Lilac Festival sued his company, LeBeau Inc., alleging labor law violations. The court action followed a state Department of Labor investigation that ended with the firm agreeing to pay four Frontier Field workers $74,000.

In the same year, LeBeau Inc. was hit with lawsuit from an Air Show attendee who had been crippled in an auto accident. The plaintiff won a $20 million judgment four years later, but by that point LeBeau Inc. had no assets.

Springut, who had previously run Red Creek, a Jefferson Road night club featuring blues and folk acts in an intimate setting, took over the Lilac Festival in 2012, continuing the event in virtually the same mold LeBeau had cast it, running the festival until he bowed out this year.

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

4 thoughts on “Lilac Festival promoter withdraws from event

  1. The “Lilac Festival” has nothing to do with Lilacs anymore. It is a crass, commercial grease fest of bad food, bad music and ill behaved “guests”. At one time this festival was Internationally known and celebrated. Tens of Thousands of Visitors came from around the world. And the two great masterminds — Ted Collins “Doc Lilac”, lilac breeder, and his friend Dan Morgan, created a scent called “The Scent of Lilacs.” It was a massive hit. Each year Collins and Morgan also had a huge bouquet of Lilacs delivered to the 1st Lady at the White House. When Xerox and Kodak were recruiting executives, they always included “Scent of Lilac” in a gift basket for their wives. These two knew how to market. So what is wrong with us now? Why don’t we look at large, successful botanical shows like the Philadelphia Flower Show? Why don’t we play this for it’s quality, not a beer swill? I assure you, if this were really about beautiful flowers, better food choices, no cheesy vendors and information and education about our gem of a park, NO TEENS would want to crash it unless they wanted to know local history. Sign me: The Lilac Lady. I go to the Park dressed in lavender clothing with a big hat and little info sheets that give people real information. I hang out near the pansy bed, serve as a photo prop and meet people from all over the country and the world. Why doesn’t the Park hire me to Welcome guests, answer lilac questions, and give tours? Why indeed? I have been doing this for 15 years now.

  2. I am another “old timer” who fondly remembers Lilac Sunday – not a week long festival. At this point, what we’ve had does lack charm. I have appreciated hearing some of the music in the past, but the Lilac Festival has been a deterrent to visiting Highland Park’s stunning lilac display.

    On another note, Jeff Springut’s famous club, Red Creek, was on Jefferson Road, not Jefferson Ave.

    We have many successful festivals in Rochester, maybe Jazz Festival or Fringe Festival folks would share their expertise?

  3. I happen to agree with Sally. It’s about the Lilacs. Adding the vendors and the parade has little to do with the Lilacs. I know I may sound like an old fart as well…and for good reason, I am. I’m also aware of the trouble makers that always ruin it for those who simply want to enjoy the day. Then when the police step in to quell those who insist on disruption and provide the shenanigans the law-suits appear. That brings the attorneys on the scene who look to harvest the almighty dollar on the issues. It’s usually the very few who spoil the day for the many. It then becomes more and more difficult the cover the event with insurance, police, cleanup and the cost is simply not worth the risk.

  4. Personally, I would be happy to see the Lilac Festival become a smaller, less commercialized event. Not to take anything away from the hard work and expertise of Jeff Springut & company, but the festival has become pretty much devoid of charm in recent years, as well as a draw for troublemakers. I know I sound like an old fart, but the only way you can really enjoy Rochester’s wonderful lilacs is to visit prior to or after the festival — not during. Unfortunately, downsizing will likely be an unpopular choice with decision-makers.

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