The sight of 20 people exiting a porta-potty at once is what tipped off the security guard: A small mob had cut through a fence and ripped into the back of the toilet to sneak into the concert area.
Or so goes one of Matt Mithun's favorite stories from the bygone era of Float-Rite Park amphitheater a decade ago, when heavy-metal festivals ruled the day -- and some of the local townspeople rued the disorder they brought.
"That's the sort of thing that hopefully won't be happening here anymore," promised Mithun, the amphitheater's new owner, as he pointed to new, permanent bathroom buildings and a bold new direction at the concert and tubing haven an hour east of the Twin Cities.
The 34-year-old grandson of a Minneapolis advertising baron -- and son of the landlord of the massive We Fest country music bash -- Mithun is a rich city kid who swooped into this rural and economically challenged western Wisconsin tourist town last summer to snatch up the amphitheater, which can hold as many as 40,000 fans. He paid $700,000 for the 58-acre site at a St. Croix County sheriff's auction.
With several million dollars invested, including the purchase of an adjacent 100-acre farm for campgrounds, Mithun will finally get to test his literal field of dreams with this weekend's SoundTown festival. The hip, two-day indie-rock music marathon will feature the Flaming Lips, New Pornographers and other bands you won't find on the jukebox in town at General Sam's bar.
"If Minnesotans are willing to go out to the Coachella festival in California or Bonnaroo in Tennessee, surely they will consider going to Somerset instead," theorized Ali Lozoff, marketing manager at alternative station the Current 89.3 FM, SoundTown's primary promotional partner. Although the Current staff knew that the Float-Rite concert venue "does have a reputation to overcome," Lozoff said, "The lineup is a pretty clear signal it's a new direction."
For more reasons than musical, Mithun hopes his event will be a far cry from the last event held at his amphitheater: the Apple River Country Splash, a mention of which is liable to draw a groan around Somerset.
Failed to make the Splash
Held at the amphitheater from 2008 to 2010, the Country Splash did not draw enough to pay for such big-name acts as Kenny Chesney, who wound up suing the venue's previous owner for nonpayment, as did several concert companies and even Bridgeman's Ice Cream. The Village of Somerset was among the long list of unpaid creditors.
"It was just greatly mismanaged," said John Montpetit, owner of the neighboring Float-Rite Park tubing facility on the Apple River.
Part of a well-known Somerset family -- the ice rink in town is named after his dad, Archie -- John Montpetit oversaw the amphitheater during the 1990s and early 2000s, when annual events such as X Fest, Ozzfest and Edgefest filled it with rock fans. But then his cousin, Terry Montpetit, took over the amphitheater in 2005 ("he used to be my cousin," John retorted). Terry, who could not be reached for comment, eventually put the amphitheater in bankruptcy and created a lot of ill will.
Arguably the person with more riding on the remade Somerset Amphitheater than anyone not named Mithun, John Montpetit said, "It's night and day over there now. Everything seems to be getting done the right way."
With his ad-executive dad Raymond Mithun Jr. -- son of the co-founder of the Campbell Mithun agency -- as an investment partner, Matt Mithun is installing a larger stage, more permanent seats (up to 2,700) and a VIP camping area with 180 RV hookups. On the adjacent 100-acre plot, fields are being bulldozed and plumbing installed for about 2,000 campsites.
In short, the property is starting to look like the Mithuns' other big spread -- Soo Pass Ranch in Detroit Lakes, Minn., where We Fest is held each summer.
Matt Mithun said he does not plan to compete with We Fest. He hopes to bring in other varieties of concerts, along with sporting events and non-musical festivals. He admitted that SoundTown, expected to draw 5,000 to 7,500 fans, is a modest start that came down to his personal music tastes and "to not wanting to blow the bank on a talent budget the first year.
"We still have a lot of work to do, but I would've been too anxious to wait until next year before putting on at least one event here," said Mithun, who worked in financial services and film production in San Francisco before returning to the western Twin Cities suburbs (with twin babies) last year.
"I always wanted to do something with live music. So when this property came up, it just seemed like too perfect a situation to pass up."
A local welcoming
Somerset seems to be rooting for Mithun.
Chief of Police Doug Briggs said he is optimistic the new amphitheater won't cause some of the problems previously associated with concerts there. For one, there's a new four-lane bypass on Hwy. 35 to alleviate traffic congestion. Briggs also believes the additional camping facilities will help cut down on DWIs and other unruly behavior.
"The less people there are getting on the roads after a concert, the better," he said.
Vicki Quaderer, 64, who lives just up the street, said, "I actually always enjoyed having all the concertgoers around, at least for a few weekends out of the year." However, she believes having the concerts back is especially important now with Somerset struggling economically.
"Things are just terrible right now, so it probably couldn't be coming at a better time," said Quaderer.
Only four tubing companies operate in town, down from 10 a couple decades ago. At the Rendezvous, a bar and pizza hangout in business 35 years, they recently instituted new dart and pool leagues to bring in customers.
"The concerts definitely brought in more business, so we're pretty ecstatic," said Rendezvous employee Sandy Rider, adding that the staff there is "even listening to the Current now to learn about these bands."
The rock festivals were not always so welcome. In 1997, local residents voiced enough opposition to a pending Ozzfest with Black Sabbath and Marilyn Manson -- calling it a "satanic rock concert" -- the event was moved to the Metrodome. Complaints about drunkenness, traffic and noise were also annual rituals.
Minneapolis concert promoter Randy Levy, who booked the Ozzfest and X Fest shows at Float-Rite, downplayed those incidents and said, "For the most part, the town always maintained the resort-town mentality that anything that brings in people is good for business." However, he pointed out that the amphitheater now faces a lot more competition, including music festivals in Cadott, Wis., and Walker, Minn., as well as the new Mystic Lake Casino amphitheater.
The Mithuns probably deserve the benefit of any doubt, though. As a co-founder of We Fest, Levy knows the family well. "They have a good track record for turning in quality developments," he said, adding that success in concert promotion "often comes down to who has deep enough pockets to last."
A well-known general rule in the rock and country fest business is to not expect profits for several years. Apple River Country Splash arguably fell victim to that. John Montpetit, however, sees brighter things ahead with a new family taking over.
"They're a very successful family who I think are going to do great things for Somerset," Montpetit said. "I think the community is realizing how important these concerts are for everyone around here."