TRUMANSBURG, N.Y. — In an area that loves its festivals, the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance is one of the most iconic. For nearly three decades, the celebration has featured a wide array of musical acts and drawn tens of thousands of people to Trumansburg every summer. It’s become such a staple and success, it’s hard to imagine it any different.
But as the scope of the music has expanded and attendance has consistently risen, come challenges and opportunities. This has given the organization a reason to assess its state of affairs and make an expansion plan that will allow it to grow in the decades ahead. Organizers have some big plans that include new infrastructure and plenty of space to stretch out.
Jordan Puryear and Ibe Jonah are in charge of putting that plan together. Puryear continues to be involved in the festival as his family has since its inception. He was instrumental in launching the other two GrassRoots sites and handles a lot of the logistics for the Trumansburg festival – site building, site design, tear-down of temporary structures, overseeing music production and production values like sound and lighting equipment. Jonah, in contrast, is the passionate newcomer, starting in the role of Director of Development in April.
The two have been working on behalf of the organization to craft a plan for the future. What will GrassRoots look like 10 years from now? To help answer that, they have turned to their other festivals for inspiration.
“We’re in a nationalization of the GrassRoots Plan. Shakori Hill just finished its 16th year successfully,” Puryear said. “In North Carolina, we have a twice a year festival, May and October, and we founded the Shakori Hill Community Art Center on a piece of property that we ended up co-buying with the organization up here. We purchased a major 72-acre piece of property, put in roads, infrastructure, a permanent stage, various enhancements. How we ended up purchasing that property was through a community-owned mortgage of 25 festival fans, mostly North Carolinians, putting together the money to buy the farm, $625,000 was raised there. It’s how we hope to facilitate this build out here, across the way, the 90 acres behind the Shur-Save on Route 96.”
To be exact, it’s 91.3 acres. GrassRoots bought it through a limited-liability company for $560,000 in October 2017. That might come as a surprise to those used to tuning in over at the Trumansburg Fairgrounds across the road, but according to Puryear, plans for the Falls Road property have been in motion ever since.
“There wasn’t much discussion before we purchased it, we didn’t want to put the cart before the horse. As soon as that deal came through for GrassRoots, we started to work on what’s the best use for that property. Being a non-profit, we’re more stewards of community property than a commercial entity driven by the money we can make out of it. Our process was to really figure out what’s the best way that property can fit in with the mission of GrassRoots and supporting arts and the community.”
The potential hop across the street isn’t any fault of the fairground, but for the growing festival, the old grounds have become a bit cramped.
“We’ve always enjoyed a good relationship with the fairground. GrassRoots built the permanent stage there more than 10 years ago. It’s been an inspiration for the community and GrassRoots to have that facility, it’s a beautiful piece of property and maintained for 150 years as a community gathering space … Being right across the street, it will allow the GrassRoots festival to expand somewhat. We’ve maxed out at the capacity of that site and I think at a certain point you have big enough crowds that at a certain point it becomes a negative, a barrier. We’ve had well over 600 campsites at the ‘across the way’ site, this will double the campsite size and give a chance to spread out, let people set up fancy camps and express themselves,” said Puryear.
GrassRoots has come a long way since its start back in 1990, when it began as a benefit show at the State Theatre to raise money for the fight against AIDS. The festival organization began the following year, led by the Puryear family – matriarch Leslie, and her sons Jeb and Jordon, members of the beloved local band Donna the Buffalo (Jordon played bass for a while, while Jeb still plays with the band on the electric guitar and provides some of the vocals).
Today, the Trumansburg Grassroots festival draws tens of thousands of visitors each year. Similar GrassRoots events in Virginia Key, Florida (in February) and Shakori Hills, North Carolina (in May and October) serve as premier destinations in their own right – there’s now practically a GrassRoots music and art festival for every season.
“GrassRoots has changed significantly in the last 10 years,” Jonah said. “The scope of the musical offerings, the reach of GrassRoots, the increased participation. We have more than 50,000 come to Trumansburg, 100,000 with North Carolina and Virginia Key. We acquired the property with an expansion of scope.”
This summer, GrassRoots rolled out its first concept plan for the site.
Working with Whitham Planning and Design, the organization sought to make the site a true mixed-use property. There are campsites, cabins, a large solar farm to offset the electricity use of big production and help make the project carbon neutral, housing clustered together into a walkable neighborhood, a hotel, a longhouse for the Cayuga Nations, recreational fields, protected natural areas, and the centerpiece of it all, an indoor and outdoor performing arts center and cultural museum.
“It would be the keystone of the whole project. The idea is to have a multi-use building that we’d like to construct, a performance hall that could hold 1,000 people with a connected outdoor summer-use lawn area that would hold 2,000-3,000 people, so the building would have an indoor stage and at the very back, a porch-like area as an outdoor amphitheater-type stage. But not with the roof like Canandaigua or SPAC (Saratoga Performing Arts Center), an indoor space with a fully outdoor covered stage. It would also be offered to the community for activities, weddings, educational functions, a general performing arts space. We would like to spark some interest in hands-on education in the arts and have people learn the skills to put on shows like sound and lighting. When you do events, you branch out into quite a few areas,” said Puryear.
Plans require a lot of time and effort to turn into reality. As Jonah explained, they feel there are four major challenges, but they feel that the benefits brought by GrassRoots and the potential benefits the projects will bring to the area are worth the effort.
“One of the issues is to come out with a plan that complies with existing zoning in the area. If you look at the plan, we have come up with a design that doesn’t require adjustments to zoning. The second issue is making sure we are environmentally conscious, so most of the development is away from the (Smith) Woods. Third, we wanted something realistic and actionable, something we’d be able to implement. The fourth is that most places, you have what are called NIMBY folks, that is a challenge we may face.”
“When GrassRoots was founded more than 30 years ago, Jordon and Jeb probably didn’t think they’d have this amount of economic impact on the region, but the move from the State Theatre was a big inflection point, which led to an expansion of GrassRoots, and GrassRoots has contributed tremendously economically, and positively to Trumansburg and the rest of the county. If this plan comes into existence, then Trumansburg and Tompkins County will benefit enormously and it will lead to the expansion of the village, we’ll have the requisite municipal services. We would also be creating jobs, and more opportunities for independent actors to come and showcase their wonderful talent in the area. It’s good for quality of life, the economy, the environment, and the mental well-being of folks in Tompkins County and the Southern Tier region.”
To expand further on that part about “expansion of the village,” well, that might have been the biggest surprise during the interview. The village boundary would be extended to the southeast to include the property and the 32-acre Smith Woods between it and the current boundary. The woods are owned by the Cayuga Nature Center and will remain undeveloped. As Jonah explained, “(w)e’re working on being annexed into the village, the first time (the village has expanded) in a century. That site and Smith Woods, we’re working with Mayor Rordan [Hart] on it.”
The goals are lofty, and the time frame for development is quick if still generous. Puryear said he’d like to see the major components completed in five years, and all of the plan fully realized by the end of the next decade.
“It feels like the kind of plan that’s moving along and has some traction. It’s been great working with Scott Whitham, this plan feels like it has a life of its own and we hope to do what we can to get it going,” Puryear said.
Jonah was just as optimistic.
“We’re working to bring a full realization of the vision the founders had in mind in both of musical offerings and a significant economic impact to the region,” said Jonah. “I expect GrassRoots will be the preeminent music destination for New York State, and hopefully be able to be talked about like big music festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo. We have the personnel, the vision and the dedication, and the music offerings to make it possible. It will be an incubator for creativity and to showcase talent, we have enormous talent in this area and allows it to blossom.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Jordan Puryear’s first name.
Featured image: Aerial image of the 2019 Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance in Trumansburg, NY. (Jacob Mroczek/The Ithaca Voice)