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Relying on Reliant

IFest makes the jump from downtown to South Main

"When you say 'Reliant Park,' everybody that you talk to thinks it's gonna be over there -- that hot, black asphalt. No wind, no shade. They don't know about this place."

So says Houston International Festival organizer Jim Austin. The two of us are standing in a field off South Main that will be iFest's home for at least the next five years. The skeletons of stages and the wooden frames of Thai-style palapas are dotted here and there over the 27-acre space, which is a lot greener than I had been led to expect. A December editorial in the Houston Chronicle stated that the festival would be held "in a parking lot interrupted by small areas of grass, young trees and retention ponds," and they're right on two of those counts. The trees are young and there are retention ponds, but the grass area encompasses at least ten acres, which is probably more green space than iFest had downtown. Sure, the Texas and Latin stages are in parking lots, and despite its lingering ramshackle 1950s-era charm, South Main is relatively sterile compared to downtown.

Will this field be iFest's burial ground or a launching pad? This year's model will go a long way toward determining that. By now, most of you know the backstory -- about how iFest changed when it started charging admission in 1995, about how City Council recently wanted to quintuple the fees levied on the event to $250,000 per year, about how Smith Street (which ran through the heart of the old festival grounds) got torn up. It's become fashionable to hate on iFest. When even the Chronicle says you've gotten too big and too costly for your own good, you clearly have a media relations problem.

And so Austin is trying to set the record straight with me. "When we were downtown, we had to come up with so much money to pay for stuff that is already in place here," he says. "Every single light pole, you'll see an electrical outlet. That means we don't have to lay electrical down. We don't have to bring in expensive generators that are loud and smelly."

At first, when he's talking about how much money he's going to save, you think, "Well, that's all well and good, but what's in it for me, the festivalgoer?" But he does have a point about the generators -- I had never really noticed it before, but come to think of it, there was a certain ambience of dynamo hum in the background at iFests past.

He's also eager to tout the Reliant site's easier access. There's ample parking on-site, and there will be shuttles to the festival gates from the light rail stop a few blocks away on Fannin. (And I might add, three bus lines down Main. Or if you really got the proverbial wild hair, you could rent a room at the nearby Palm Court Inn, a pristine, golden-age motel complete with tiki hut-lined pool. In contrast to downtown, those who really want to make a weekend of iFest will have no shortage of affordable crash pads in the immediate vicinity.)

Then there's the matter of the fencing. "We loved the experience downtown, we loved the buildings downtown, but we would have to rent fencing," Austin continues. "It was ugly, expensive, and it looked like we were caging people."

And people resented the fact that he was fencing off streets that were paid for with taxpayer dollars. The Reliant site is completely fenced in already. Somehow that fact changes the whole vibe -- though whether for better or worse remains to be seen. At the last few iFests downtown, you felt like you were paying to use your own city, that it was a grassroots event that had somehow grown way too expensive. Here, there's no illusion that this is anything other than an attraction, like the rodeo. Who knows whether that honesty of presentation will diminish the event or help it to grow.

The relative lack of shade is the main geographical drawback at Reliant. The park's young oaks are too few and too scrawny to offer much relief from the heat, so Austin is touting the numerous misting tents and various other "shade structures" that will be up and running. One thing that he does have going for him at the new site that he didn't have downtown is unobstructed access to the winds. On the day of my visit, a steady westerly breeze is blowing, the temperature is in the mid-70s, seagulls are laughing and wheeling in the skies, and it's hard to imagine the heat being a factor. But even though iFest is starting about a week earlier than normal, it probably will be.

Thailand is this year's spotlighted country, and while there will be plenty of Thai food, Thai boxing, Thai elephants, Thai booze, Thai arts and crafts, and Thai ballet, there is no Thai pop or roots music on the bill whatsoever, and relative to iFests past, there's not that much foreign music. But there is a lot of good music, so let's look at it day by day.

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