MUSICAL ENTREPRENEUR entrepreneur Ernie Hahn is eager to reconnect the public with pre-COVID leisure pursuits.
We're strolling across downtown San Diego’s Embarcadero Marina Park North. Joggers glide past us on a quiet morning that's pleasantly cooled by a fading marine layer. A barking dog on a leash punctuates the midweek reverie.
This grassy expanse between the San Diego Bay and the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina holds faint echoes. Wa-a-ay back in November 2019, this spot near Seaport Village is where the Wonderfront Music & Arts Festival sprang to life.
Seven bayfront stages. More than 100 bands. Seemingly a lifetime ago, the area was transformed into a pulsating cornucopia of human celebration, soundtracked by an eclectic collection of musical genres.
An era of masked silence ensued. Nobody could have predicted a pandemic would pause the festival’s sophomore effort for three years.
Tickets are now on sale for the comeback, scheduled for November 18-20, 2022. Headliners are Gwen Stefani, Zac Brown Band and Kings of Leon. There’ll be plenty of up-and-coming bands, too.
Hahn and I are meeting on the downtown festival site to talk about the viability of an urban setting for a music festival. And, whether Wonderfront could reasonably aspire to be a successor to the late, great downtown music festival known as Street Scene.
(FYI: Keep an eye out this week for updates about tickets, participating acts and other festival-related events.)
Hahn is reminiscing—about recent past events and generational changes in the San Diego cityscape. A decade ago, he and co-founder Paul Thornton looked all over San Diego when they started considering sites for a music festival.
“We looked at Coronado, North Island and the beaches,” Hahn says. “We talked about Camp Pendleton and Fiesta Island. We talked about Del Mar Fairgrounds—before KAABOO came into town.”
[Note: The KAABOO music festival had a five-year run in Del Mar. Organizers planned to set up shop at downtown’s Petco Park in 2020. Then, pandemic. Conflicting reports have surfaced over the future of that festival.]
Outwardly, Hahn is solely focused on the viability and destiny of Wonderfront.
“When we were looking around at first, no place was a unique fit that screamed San Diego the way Street Scene did,” Hahn says.
Nationally renowned, Street Scene was held downtown from 1984-2004. Under the weight of the Great Recession, it changed locations, struggled financially and faded out in 2009.
Hahn loved the idea of being downtown, but development in the city made the Street Scene model unfeasible.
“We couldn’t do it in the middle of downtown like Street Scene did,” he says. “That’s partly why they left. The organizers lost all their contiguous downtown blocks. All those blocks became condos.”
Still, he says the “secret sauce” was in finding a way to connect to downtown. The solution: a partnership with the Port of San Diego and a festival site that spans the northwestern bayfront.
Hahn is a recognizable face in San Diego. It’s fair to say redefining downtown’s infrastructure runs in the family.
His family tree has roots in urban history. Grandpa was Ernest W. Hahn, who developed Horton Plaza, which in 1989 helped revitalize downtown.
At the time, Horton Plaza was a national model for mall-centric urban redevelopment. (More recently, Horton Plaza was gutted and is being reimagined as a mixed-used space for commercial and retail use.)
Before founding Dream Hahn, an experiential marketing company, Ernie Hahn, 53, spent most of the last three decades heading the San Diego Sports Arena (currently named Pechanga Arena).
Over that time, he says he’s been a part of more than 4,000 concerts and events. He brings strong local relations to the festival effort—with longstanding ties to experts in lighting, sound, security and a long list of specialties that go into event production.
"Ernie is a people person," says Thornton, who is also president of TAG Presents. "He's good at the networking. Me, I grind it out at the computer, doing the marketing and the talent buying. We're a good team."
Thornton--whose festival efforts are bolstered by his TAG Presents team--has had plenty of time to tinker with the lineup. Fortuitously, he says more than 60 percent of artists scheduled for 2020 rolled over to this year.
Hahn and partner Bob Ridgeway bought a double-decker bus and converted the top level into a state-of-the-art stage for bands. The lower level is a VIP Lounge.
Today, there are two Wonderbuses in the fleet. They tour all over San Diego County, playing live music on the go, while promoting the Wonderfront name.
“It’s giving the festival relevance, credence and promotion—even when it wasn’t happening,” he says. “The bus is generating goodwill and positive vibes all along the way.”
Hahn hopes San Diegans will connect that the bus and the festival are a community-driven effort. Local notables invested in the Wonderfront Festival include Padres Hall-of-Famer Trevor Hoffman, skateboarding icon Tony Hawk and surfing legend Rob Machado.
“When Wonderbus does positive things in the community, I want people to know that the co-founders of the bus, and this festival, live in San Diego 365 days a year,” he says. “We’re not from out of town. This isn’t something where the owners arrive one week a year and leave. We’re here all the time.”
This year’s festival site will be streamlined from its 2019 layout. Two stages will be built in the Seaport Village parking lot (combined capacity: 15,000). Two more (including the main stage) will stand on Embarcadero Marina Park North, which can accommodate about 17,500 people.
One additional festival stage will be set up on Broadway Pier. That site will be free to the public and feature local bands.
The nearby Rady Shell at Jacobs Park (on Embarcadero Marina Park South) will not be utilized for Wonderfront.
Hahn says plans call for nearby Ruocco Park to be activated with a local partner as a "Taste of San Diego" food-and-beverage area.
Several aspects of Wonderfront are unique to the music festival experience, including floating venues, affiliated after-parties and in-and-out privileges afforded to all ticket-buyers.
Floating venues. Hahn says the utilization of Flagship Cruises & Events boats to do concerts on the bay was wildly popular in 2019. Plans for this year are still being fine-tined, but expect more access to “booze-and-groove" cruises.
After parties. The festival shuts down at 10 p.m. all three nights. Night cruises on the bay are planned, as well as after-party concerts at venues like The Casbah and Music Box.
In-and-out privileges. Ticket holders are allowed unlimited in-and-out access to the festival site. Hahn raves about this concept.
Hahn doesn’t want concertgoers focused on hearing Gwen Stefani close the festival at night to miss the newer bands that are scheduled earlier in the day.
“If you want to put in 8 to 10 hours at our festival you could listen for two hours and then take a break,” Hahn says. “Go out and take a nap. Or discover a new downtown restaurant. Then come back. As many times as you like."
He believes this is a key facet that makes the downtown site ideal.
“If you live downtown, what could be better?” Hahn asks. “There’s a festival a short walk from your house. At the end of the night, you walk home. It’s ideal. If you’re from North County or out of town, the hotels are right here. It’s simple. It’s not like we’re out in the middle of a desert.”
Mostly, Hahn would like San Diegans to adopt Wonderfront as a local institution. Like Street Scene.
“I want people to look at this festival the way they look at the Padres, or how they used to look at the Chargers,” he says. “This is their festival. It’s about music and discovering new bands, but it’s about San Diego first.”