Southern Ontario’s Rising Festival Site: Burl’s Creek

By Gilles Leblanc

The Greater Toronto Area is a market that sure loves music festivals. From the Rock and Roll Revival in 1969 to Riot Fest, quite a few events have blown through these parts, although with the exception of the city-strewn North by Northeast, none of them have ever really been sustainable.

The revitalized Burl’s Creek hopes to change this starting in 2015. Located less than an hour and a half away from Downtown Toronto in lusciously green Oro-Medonte, the 700 acre space is promoting itself as Canada’s largest outdoor concert site, and will be the new home of the Boots and Hearts country music festival in August.

Ryan Howes is certainly eager. The vice president of venue operations and business development feels Burl’s Creek is going to fill a large void throughout the GTA and Ontario in terms of staging multi-day festivals and large-scale music events, one in his opinion that has gone underserved since Barrie’s Molson Park closed for good in the mid-2000s.

Mr. Howes seems tailor-made for this exciting position. “I started out in the live music industry at quite a young age,” Howes modestly boasted over the phone from Burl’s Creek one snowy afternoon. “I was at Molson Park when I was 14 years old, and worked my way up in various departments on a seasonal basis. I became a site manager for Molson, who at the time owned and operated Molson Park and was involved in everything from major festivals like Edgefest to Lollapalooza to Summersault, to stand-alone shows with Neil Young, Pearl Jam and Beastie Boys.”

Howes went on to manage the Molson (Canadian) Amphitheatre, and was also a part of the 2011 opening of Echo Beach, Toronto’s hottest summertime music setting. The Simcoe County native clearly has a vested interest in making Burl’s Creek a resounding success. The expanse of land off of Highway 11 at 8th Line isn’t a stranger to bigtime productions, having hosted a Jack Johnson tour stop in 2008. While it was very well-attended, Howes recounted to me, getting fans in and out in a timely fashion was challenging. Burl’s Creek’s new owners have acquired additional adjacent property so as to improve traffic flow via multiple access routes, and provide future festies with amenities like ample camping. To borrow a cheesy line from Canadian band Trooper, it is evident Burl’s Creek is here for a good time AND a long time, besides making a “huge economic impact to the area” Howes explained. “Burl’s Creek is going to be the modern day Molson Park,” he promises.

“We’re definitely not taking a template from another site such as the Gorge in Washington State or the polo fields for Coachella and Stagecoach, or even the venue where Bonnaroo is held in Tennessee,” Howes enthused. “This will be a very unique site, one that has never been seen before in North America.” The main highlight of the infrastructure that’s being put it at Burl’s Creek are two naturally graded amphitheatres with the ability to accommodate 80,000 and 30,000 people concurrently. Whoa! And those won’t be the only attractive components to Burl’s Creek, according to Howes. “The fact that there’s beautiful forests that surround Burl’s Creek, and 80 to 100-year old trees that line the perimeter of the performance areas, and the fact that it’s all going to be green space, it’s not a concrete slab, there’s no reserved seating; there’s going to be more than enough space for concertgoers and families to actually enjoy a concert experience and take it all in.”

The desire and want by connoisseurial consumers to do something different between May Two-Four and Labour Day has been key to Burl’s Creek decision-making. Destination festivals are all the rage these days, offering experiences that continue well beyond the music ending. To take advantage of the 1.1 million travellers who drive by Oro-Medonte on an average summer weekend, Howes told me how they’re “also going to be launching a new farmer’s market that operates on Fridays to get that cottage country traffic, which will be pushing all the local food, beer, spirits and wine with a music as well as family element.” Their lazer-focused intent is to be a full-purpose, active community venue, attracting distinctive audiences while supporting local charities too – The Central Ontario Ride for Sight, for instance, will happen at Burl’s Creek on June 13th.

Howes was understandably mum over rumours about the Lollapalooza franchise returning to Canada, or the latest one concerning a potential Bonnaroo offshoot. All he’d admit to me was that a lot of wheels were in motion, and that announcements regarding more events other than Boots and Hearts would be made in early 2015. Howes was, however, surprisingly forthright in who he’d like to see pay a visit to Burl’s Creek in the near future. “I think for a stand-alone show it’d be great to get an act up here like a Pearl Jam or a Coldplay. There’s very few artists out there that can sell a very large amount of tickets in a large space. Getting a band like that, it crosses a lot of generations and not just a specific demographic. Seeing a band like that with a huge open size over you…I think it would be really something special compared to seeing them in a stadium or an arena setting.”

I for one can’t wait for the warm weather in order to make the sojourn there to check this sure-to-be picturesque place out. I’m positive it’ll bring back wonderful memories of the many trips I took to Molson Park, not to mention create a whole pile of new ones!

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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