City officials: Starscape's 14-year run at Fort Armistead is over

As thousands of late-night revelers partied to thumping electronic dance music in the graffiti-marked remains of an old fort in Baltimore last month, some overdosed on drugs or became overwhelmed by the heat, according to a report by the city fire marshal.

While the overnight Starscape festival at Fort Armistead Park stretched into the early-morning hours, emergency medical crews from the city and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties struggled to keep up with calls for help from the venue, responding to the park "continuously" for 12 hours, the report says.

"If not for the intervention of our EMS, kids would have died," said Deputy Fire Chief Raymond O'Brocki, the city's fire marshal.

As a result, city officials late last week told longtime Starscape promoter Lonnie Fisher that the electronic dance festival's 14-year run at Fort Armistead has come to an end. The festival, which started in 1999, took place this year from June 9 to the next day and featured several stages where DJs and electronic dance music performers played under flashing lights.

"As it currently stands, he will not be receiving a permit for Starscape again in the future," said Kaliope Parthemos, the city's deputy chief for economic development, who noted the city's recreation and parks department, which issued the permit, is completely revamping its permitting process.

A letter Parthemos wrote to Fisher noted "several serious safety concerns" and said the event had "outgrown the current venue at Fort Armistead."

Fisher said he would fight to keep the event alive, and wants to work with city officials to address the perceived problems.

But city officials expressed little willingness to allow anything of Starscape's scale at the park again.

"I'm glad they're putting a stop to it," said City Councilman Edward Reisinger, a Democrat whose district includes the park and who said he became "livid" after reading the fire marshal's report on emergency resources' response to the event.

"It's really a drug party," he said of Starscape, adding that the city shouldn't be hosting a "rave" for out-of-town partiers if it stretches the city's Fire Department, which is already strained.

"That's too much of a tax on the city," Reisinger said.

This year's Starscape attracted close to 14,000 people, even though promoters had a permit to host only 7,500 on the 50-acre, waterfront park, O'Brocki said.

It was advertised as a "Garden of Eden" fantasy world for young fans of the beat-heavy electronic dance music genre, which has seen enormous growth in popularity the past few years. Attendees had to be 18 or older.

O'Brocki said ambulances had a difficult time getting to overdose victims through the only access road into the park. O'Brocki also said the event has "flown under the radar" in years past because there weren't many problems, but that this year was different.

Fisher admitted to selling about 11,400 tickets to the event, and said that with staff and band personnel included, the total number of people in the park during the event was close to 13,000.

Fisher acknowledged the single road into the park presented a problem in terms of access, which he "did not fully take into account" when issuing tickets. But he also said city officials knew the number of attendees would exceed the permit. Fisher said that officials gave him no guidance or recommendations to prevent problems during pre-event planning meetings, and that their subsequent concerns were blown out of proportion.

"The government is capable of presenting a case that seems so extreme when it wants to serve its agenda, but I'm going to push back with some perspective," he said.

Fisher said the event has grown in recent years, but not to the point of being out of control. He acknowledged drugs probably were taken at the festival but said that's the case at many large entertainment events.

"I think the event went fine for the number of people we had at the event, and the fact that it's a music event," he said. "Young adults at any music event do certain things that put themselves in jeopardy."

Anne Arundel and Maryland Transportation Authority police, who patrolled the festival doing drug enforcement, said they arrested at least seven people on drug charges and confiscated 20 grams of suspected marijuana, two MDMA pills, otherwise known as "ecstasy," almost 10 grams of liquid and tab-form LSD, and $384.

People who attended the event said overcrowding was a major issue.

Jon Symonds, 35, of Towson, said he arrived about 11 p.m. June 9 after parking his car elsewhere and taking a shuttle to the event, and was met near the entrance by fire personnel, who said he could not go into the event despite having a ticket.

"It was way overcrowded, and they weren't letting anyone in," he said.

Still, he said, he "managed to get in" by following a friend. "We went up on a highway and underneath a bridge and through a fence, and we just got some bracelets from friends and walked right through," he said.

"People were passing out and stuff inside," Symonds said. "It was really crowded; some stages, you could barely move. It was like person to person, really packed."

Robert Delong, a performer at the concert who is from Los Angeles, said that he had a great time at the event, that Fort Armistead was a beautiful place to play and that people seemed like they were having fun. But, he said, the crowds were intense at times.

"There was definitely a jam of people," he said.

Ashley Suszczynski, a freelance photographer who has worked multiple festivals this summer, said this Starscape was the "grimiest" of them all.

"It was so crowded, it was hard to find anywhere to even rest because people were walking all over you," he said. "It was so oversold for the amount of space they had."

According to O'Brocki, the perimeter of the event was poorly monitored — a claim Fisher disputed — and people were sneaking in.

"People were jumping the fence, which wouldn't be hard to do, considering security was pretty lax," O'Brocki said.

O'Brocki, who was at a conference in Nevada at the time and was giving orders to his staff over the phone, at one point considered shutting down the event but feared the outcome.

"We were fearful that if we just closed it down, it would possibly cause a riot," O'Brocki said. "So we decided just to send a ton of resources down there to Band-Aid the situation."

In all, the city sent six medic units, three EMS units with an EMS battalion chief, two engine units, two hazardous materials units, one truck unit and one rescue boat to the event. Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County sent two medic units each. Some of the individual units that responded made repeat trips to the event.

By comparison, the city stations two medic units at M&T; Bank Stadium during Ravens games, which draw close to 80,000 people, O'Brocki said. The stadium has its own EMS personnel, but so did Starscape, he said.

The difference was that members of the "mostly intoxicated" crowd at Starscape were exerting themselves for hours on end, in sweltering heat, O'Brocki said. According to the National Weather Service, it was 90 degrees at 4:06 p.m. in the Baltimore area June 9, and the sun didn't set for another four and a half hours.

Late Tuesday, a message was posted on the festival's Facebook page that said it had "become clear" the physical layout of Fort Armistead Park is "not conducive to the current size or future potential" of the Starscape festival, and promoters would be looking for a new location for next year's festival that is "every bit as great as Fort Armistead."

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