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    Music fests make these cities center stage

    Fans at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif.
    KYLE GRILLOT/AFP/Getty Images/file
    Fans at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif.

    PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Michael Emery gestured past towering palm trees toward the snow-tipped San Jacinto mountains jutting from the desert against a sky of unblemished blue.

    “How could you not be inspired by this environment?” he said, smiling as the sun beat down.

    Emery, an artist, was talking about the beauty that surrounds this longtime retirement destination, notable as a preserve of midcentury modern architecture and past-their-prime celebrities including Barry Manilow and Suzanne Somers.


    Then he pointed in the other direction, toward trendy restaurants and galleries and hip new hotels along South Palm Canyon Drive, with roof bars and spin studios, all busy catering to a notably young and fashionable clientele.

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    They’re in town for the scenery, too, but something else has been attracting them, and contributing to a dramatic turnaround of this desert city: Coachella, the music festival that takes place nearby for only two weekends every April but has given Palm Springs a year-round international reputation and an economic and artistic boon.

    “It’s a huge shift in the matrix of tourism here,” said Emery, founder of an art festival that will debut in June called PS Mural Fest. “That’s what these big festivals do. People get a snapshot of what this valley is about.”

    In part because of Coachella, whose 20th anniversary is this summer, he said, “everybody’s heard of Palm Springs. They make an emotional connection. They want to be here. You’re talking about one of the biggest music festivals in the world. And when Beyonce chooses to perform, it circulates around the globe. Now Palm Springs is everything that’s cool and hip.”

    And not just Palm Springs. Giant music and arts events with international profiles are bringing cachet to remote destinations, from central Washington to rural Tennessee to upstate New York — and amenities that add to the appeal of these places, even at times of the year when they’re not playing host to massive concerts.


    “The vibe you get in these gateway cities is kind of an extension of the festivals themselves,” said Jennifer Cunningham, executive vice president of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority.

    Long a poor cousin to Las Vegas, Reno has not only benefitted economically from the estimated 70,000 visitors who travel to Burning Man each August through the Reno-Tahoe International Airport; it has inherited art produced for the desert festival, and some of the people who create it.

    A few artists and entrepreneurs have stayed put and helped revitalize the city’s run-down Midtown District, opening record stores, boutiques and bars and painting iconic murals; installations created for Burning Man, including a full-scale stained-glass whale and a sculpture spelling out “BELIEVE” in 12-foot steel, now are in the City Plaza, which has become as big a draw for selfies as the Reno arch. A 35,000-square-foot art space called The Generator, where much of that art is made, offers tours year-round.

    “We’ve had a lot of people move here, incredible artists, who embrace Reno and bring a whole different flavor. It’s not the Reno you remember,” said Mayor Hillary Schieve. “We have put so much of the Burning Man art throughout our city that some people who might not be able to afford to go to Burning Man or it doesn’t fit into their schedule, they can come and experience the art.”

    In this and other ways, said Cunningham, the festival “has transformed our city and really given us that cool factor.”


    The same kind of thing has put Manchester, Tenn., on the map. It’s the setting of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival — from Creole slang for “a really good time” — which swells the city’s population tenfold for four days each year, and introduces visitors both in person and on social media to the camping, fishing and hiking available the rest of the time in this out-of-the-way place between Chattanooga and Nashville.

    “It’s been just great,” said the mayor, Lonnie Norman. “You can go just about anywhere and you say ‘Bonnaroo’ and they’ll say ‘Manchester.’ ”

    Whether that’s the case or not, the festival has spun off other music and arts events and attracted not only tourists but businesses; when he was negotiating to attract a cheese plant to some unused acres, Norman recalled, the owner heard the city’s name “and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve been there before. I went to Bonnaroo.’ ” The deal went through. Now the mayor goes to Bonnaroo himself each year to present the headliner with a replica guitar inscribed with the city’s name.

    Even in places where festivals have stopped, their impact continues. The music festival Sasquatch in the central Washington city of George has announced it won’t be back this year, but it already boosted businesses that rent boats and ATVs and encouraged local wineries to add tours and chefs to open farm-to-table restaurants, said Debbie Doran-Martinez, president and CEO of the Moses Lake Chamber of Commerce. Several other annual events now use the same venue — the Gorge at George — including the country music festival Watershed each August.

    “People come a few days early to enjoy our lake,” Doran-Martinez said. “Or they see the festival — even if they don’t attend — and say, ‘Where is that? I want to go.’”

    Back in Palm Springs, attention from the new Coachella demographic has helped attract a Kimpton hotel, the first full-service hotel built in the valley from scratch in decades, with yoga mats in every room and charging stations for Teslas. Across the street is a display of eight-foot bronze sculptures of crawling babies with barcodes for faces by the provocative Czech artist David Černý.

    There’s a new Hotel Indigo planned, the first Virgin Hotel on the West Coast, and loft apartments in what is now called the Uptown Design District. Airlines are adding direct flights, including a new seasonal JetBlue nonstop from Boston. The biennial exhibition DesertX will bring outdoor artwork to the valley for its second running this year.

    “A lot of these events have contributed to the fact that our visitors are getting younger,” said Bob Thibault, chief destination development officer for the convention and visitor bureau. “Palm Springs is very popular again. It’s very cool. There are people who have heard about Coachella and want to come see what it’s all about.”

    The coolest of all such festivals, of course, was Woodstock, which happened 50 years ago this summer — a span that has made its impact clear on Bethel, N.Y., which was the actual site of the epic moment when music lovers braved mud, traffic, and establishment disdain to become a part of music history.

    The whole surrounding county, at the base of the Catskills, capitalizes on this legacy; the cover of this year’s edition of the visitor guide is an homage to the ’60s psychedelic artist Peter Max. The onetime farm where the Woodstock festival took place is now the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, with programming all summer in a 15,000-seat amphitheater. There’s a Woodstock museum, new hotels, a spa, a casino, a planned indoor water park and a monument.

    “Every day of the year — rain or shine, snow or sun — there are people that come to that monument to pay their respects, to feel the vibe,” said Wade Lawrence, the museum’s director. “That’s brought people here from all over the world. They want to walk the site where Woodstock happened.”

    The real impact “was the people who attended that festival. It was all those young kids in the audience who went home and still had that Woodstock spirit in them,” said Lawrence. “And that spirit still lives here.”

    Jon Marcus can be reached at