Electronic dance music festival Sol Fest, held in early May at Vortex Spring in Ponce de Leon, has drawn significant backlash from Holmes County residents due to alleged drug use, perceived decadent behavior, loud music, and strain on law enforcement who policed the event. [COLLIN BREAUX | The Advertiser]


Numerous members of the Holmes County community–including County leaders–voiced complaints with Sol Fest during a special Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting Thursday, May 16.

Among the complaints were about the general perception of debauched behavior, loud music, traffic conditions, and effects on law enforcement who policed the event.

Sheriff John Tate spoke against the electronic dance music festival (EDM) held at Vortex Spring 2-5, which resulted in numerous arrests for alleged drug possession and even saw a man reportedly high on multiple substances bite the head of a deputy.

“What we seen firsthand out there–listen, I’m not a Bible scholar–it is a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah. I see stuff out there before I never seen before in Holmes County. Don’t want to see again, either,” Tate said, which some audience members said “amen” to. “Most of the people out there were nice and respectful. But sometimes when the daylight went down and the night come on, they changed. We see it every day in law enforcement with drug use.”

The organizers for Sol Fest called Tate a year ago to say they want to do an event in Ponce de Leon, he said. Tate said he is for events. 

“Anybody wants to have a good family-friendly event, I’m fine with it,” Tate said. “A year and a half went by. They didn’t bother to call me. They didn’t bother to call the County. They didn’t bother to call nobody. All of the sudden, I get a call from the Crestview radio station saying, hey, do you know what’s coming to Vortex? I said no, what? They said this thing called Sol Fest. I said I don’t have a clue what that is.”

Tate said he then researched the event, which has been held at Bama Slam in Enterprise before. This year’s event was the third Sol Fest and first time in Holmes County. Thousands of people attended. 

“I told (the organizers), listen, I will not turn a blind eye to drug use. If they’re using drug use, they will go to jail. They didn’t like that,” Tate said. “The thing is, we lock up people in Holmes County every day for drug use. How would it be okay for me to say 10,000 people come in and do what you want to do in Holmes County and me not do anything about it?”

The people who ran Sol Fest “have no clue how to run nothing,” Tate further said.

“They had no business putting on a festival because they had no clue of what to do or how to do it and that was evident the first day the thing happened,” Tate continued. “Traffic was backed up 10 miles. We told them during the County Commission meeting that it was very unorganized.”

The organizers “don’t care about Holmes County” and only care about “the almighty dollar,” Tate said. 

“They said they’re from Holmes County but they want to bring this junk to this county and not do anything about it,” Tate said. 

There were overdoses during Sol Fest and not the five medical tents organizers claimed would be there, Tate said.

“I think they had five medical people for 13,000 people,” Tate said. 

Attendees were “doing drugs in front of people out in the open,” Tate said.

“You’re not going to do that in Florida. Don’t do that. Go back to where you’re from,” Tate said. “The bottom line is all these people come from these states where they don’t have law and order. They don’t have a governor that stands up for its law enforcement. They don’t have people in their communities that back law enforcement. They let them go do what they want to do as long as it don’t affect them. All these liberal states up north, all these people were from them.”

Prosperity resident Steven Boroughs, who lives a mile from Vortex Spring, also condemned Sol Fest.

“It’s the most demonic thing I’ve ever seen in our county,” Boroughs said. “This thing that came here will come back like waves and waves, like tidal waves. Two-thirty in the morning and all of the sudden I hear (the loud sounds of EDM). … The 10-mile radius heard that garbage all night long for however many days.”

Boroughs called on the BOCC to prohibit Sol Fest and similar events.

“This demon that is coming through here now, it don’t play games. This has to stop,” Boroughs said. “This is not economic development. It’s Satan and he’s trying to come into our county like a flood.”

County Attorney Nate Nolin is drafting an ordinance regulating special large-scale events, which he briefly spoke about and was on the agenda for a regular meeting Tuesday, May 21, held after press time.

“Any law takes thought. This was the first time for the County,” Nolin said. “The county is growing. There is a balanced deck as to how to handle future events, such as Sol Fest or a concert, and all those things have to be taken into consideration. Your comments have been heard and I can assure you each one of those commissioners have tasked not only myself but nine other individuals through a special event planning committee with laying eyes on an ordinance that will be in place.”

Among the committee members are Tate, EMS Director Steve Connell, Travis Cook with Bonifay Fire-Rescue, and two public members at large. 

Holmes County is pulling from sister and other counties that have handled other large-volume concerts to get “those proper internal controls in place through the Sheriff’s Office, Fire Department, through EMS, through (the Florida Department of Transportation).”

The ordinance could also “prevent certain events that are a detriment or violate the safety, health, and welfare of the citizens,” Nolin said.

“The state has police powers,” Nolin said. “The Board of County Commissioners are tasked with those police powers to govern the safety, health, and welfare of the citizens.”

Doctors Memorial Hospital Interim CEO Rohan Anderson said they saw “life-threatening overdoses” during Sol Fest. 

“Do some people at Woodstock-like events overdose on drugs to the point, when brought to the ER, they are violent? Yes, some are,” Anderson said. “Why are they violent? Some of the drugs taken cause patients to have hyperthermia. In short, their brain is overheated and they don’t know what they’re doing or even where they are.”

Life-saving procedures have to be done on such patients and aren’t easy, Anderson said.

“Is it exhausting dealing with patients who are screaming and punching at the very people trying to save their life? Yes,” Anderson said. “Can it be dangerous to the medical staff? Yes.”

Some patients wake up on ventilators while others don’t wake up at all, Anderson said.

“What about Narcan, you say? Narcan doesn’t work for all drugs and wasn’t a suitable or effective therapy for a lot of the drugs that showed up in our ER that weekend,” Anderson said. “Does it concern me that an event with thousands and thousands of attendees–many of whom were consuming today’s drugs–could overwhelm local hospitals? Yes, it does.”

Doctors Memorial was able to call in extra staff during the event and had extra security thanks to the Bonifay Police Department, Anderson said.

“We were fortunate that, between the extra medical staff and our equipment, we were able to care for all the patients–local and from the event who came through our doors,” Anderson said. 

Doctors Memorial expenses during the event were over $100,000 due to additional staff, security, and transportation, as well as patient care. 

Long-term resident Kathy Johnson McBride, whose property is by Vortex Spring, said her windows vibrated and walls were penetrated by “a bone-jarring, never-ending boom, boom, boom of so-called music” for five days and nights.

“To my horror, 10,000 drug-fuelled hippie wannabes had descended on my family’s doorstep,” McBride said. “The deafening noise filled my woods, scared my animals, and made it impossible for me to enjoy my home and property. I was also scared to leave home. When I did have to leave, I found it difficult to do so because Highway 81 was blocked and almost impossible to use as a result of the sometimes-naked wannabe hippies’ traffic.”

County Commissioner Brandon Newsom, who also lives near Vortex Spring, frequently spoke against Sol Fest before the event at a BOCC meeting and on social media and reiterated those sentiments during the May 17 meeting.

“About two weeks before when the County Commission learned about this event, I started doing some research myself,” Newsom said. “I knew it was something I wanted to make the public aware of. … Some of the things I saw…I grew up in my Christian values. You can’t compare the rodeo to this type of event. It’s apples to oranges. The rodeo is a family-friendly event. We’ve been going there every year, never had a problem.”

Tate said he could count on hand how many arrests were made at the rodeo in the past five years.

“Back in the early years, yeah, we arrested some folks because it was a different type of rodeo,” Tate said. “It was for people fighting because they got drunk. It wasn’t people openly snorting coke and walking around with furry things hanging out their rear end.”

As far as if the rodeo would fall under the County’s event ordinance, County Commissioner Clint Erickson said the rodeo is overseen by the City of Bonifay. 

In response to a resident’s question, Connell said he has made one-tenth of medical calls at the rodeo compared to Sol Fest. 

Newsom said Sol Fest intended to cause chaos on residents.

“It’s just not something that I’m going to ever see come to Holmes County,” Newsom said. “We don’t want to grow half of our population in five days and bring them to a 56-acre field to cause undue stress on our residents, our law enforcement, our EMS.”

Erickson also gave his reaction to the event and local backlash. 

“We are people that work for you. We listen to you, put things in place, and I think this Board has heard you tonight. I have definitely heard you tonight,” Erickson said. “I can agree with Brandon on the things he’s saying. I don’t think we have the infrastructure. We don’t want that. We don’t need that in this community.”

The BOCC has began steps to take litigation against the festival organizers to recoup costs related to law enforcement and other services from Sol Fest.

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