City, Organizers Hope To Continue Streak Of Freakfest Success

After 2010’s large Halloween celebration saw another drop in arrests and a big decrease in policing costs, the city of Madison and organizers are hoping this year to continue the streak of successful Freakfests.

This year’s Freakfest, Madison’s annual downtown Halloween celebration, is set for Oct. 29.

The event, which will be held on State Street, will feature a mixture of music spread over multiple stages while revelers wearing their finest costumes parade up and down the city’s main drag.

A long and sometimes infamous tradition in Madison, the annual Halloween celebrations along State Street date back to the 1970s.

In the past several years, the city of Madison has transformed the large outdoor party that has sometimes been marred by violence and property damage into “Freakfest,” a city-sanctioned event that requires admission and features live music.

The cost for Madison police to staff Freakfest has dropped dramatically since the first year.

Since Freakfest started in 2006, policing costs have dropped 58 percent, from nearly $377,000 to about $156,000 this year, according to police officials.

Organizers said that Freakfest 2010 drew a record number of people downtown, estimated at 55,000 people.

Forty-four people were arrested in 2010, the lowest number of arrests since the party started. In 2009, police said the number of arrests at Freakfest was in the low 50s.

In Freakfest’s first year, police arrested 155.

Madison Police Department spokesman Officer Howard Payne credited police strategies for the cost reduction. He noted such things as making the event “more formal,” getting other stakeholders involved in managing the event and making better use of allocated resources

Madison police said most of the citations handed out at the 2010 Freakfest were for underage drinking or possessing/consuming alcohol on the street.

“We had no significant incidents on State Street and no criminal damage that we are aware of,” said Joel DeSpain, Madison police spokesman. “There were a couple of fights, but minor, and so from our perspective things have gone very well.”

In the years before the large Halloween celebration became a city-sanctioned event, it was sometimes marred by unruly crowds, vandalism, riots and tear gas. The city’s involvement with the annual Halloween celebration was prompted by riots on State Street in 2002, 2003, 2004 and the use of pepper spray to disperse of unruly crowds in 2005.

In 2006, the city helped organize the first “Freakfest on State Street,” which required revelers to purchase a $5 ticket to enter a fenced-off State Street.

The admission fee was intended to help offset the cost of policing the event and cleanup. The total cost of responding to crowds for all law enforcement agencies was about $580,000 for the Halloween party in 2005. Madison police spent nearly $100,000 more responding to the crowds in 2005 than in 2004.

With attendance topping 35,000 and fewer arrests and damage reported than in previous years, city leaders in 2006 said they met all their goals for the new Freakfest.

The city’s new policy of charging admission significantly reduced the size of the crowd at the event, which in previous years had sometimes hovered around 70,000 people in attendance.

In an effort to build on its success, the city brought back Freakfest in 2007 with local promotions company Frank Productions booking musical acts and entertainment. Revelers again had to purchase tickets for admission.

“We just wanted to create an event that Madison can be proud of,” said David Maynard, vice president of Frank Productions. “It’s become more about coming out and having a good time and seeing who’s on stage, rather than ‘Let’s go down to Madison and see if we can (anger) the police.'”

Maynard said the Frank family has been in Madison for over forty years, and wanted to return the event to its roots as a good-natured party focused on creative costumes and live entertainment.

Police and city officials called Freakfest 2007 another success, noting that there was no serious property damage and arrests during the party set a new record low, down 25 percent from 2006.

“I think we really transformed the event in the last couple of years since we started the gating and ticketing last year, which was controversial at the time,” said then-Mayor Dave Cieslewicz in 2007. “People just didn’t think it would work. But it worked well (in 2006). It worked even better this year. So, I think we’ve gone a long way in transforming the event.”

Police said most of the tickets handed out during Freakfest were issued for open intoxicants, underage drinking and disorderly conduct.

In 2007, 120 people were in police custody by the end of Freakfest, which was a 64 percent drop from 2005. The total weekend arrests was also down. In just one year, the number dropped 25 percent, from 235 arrests in 2006 to 175 arrests in 2007, officials said.

For Freakfest 2008, Frank Productions again lined up entertainment, with the popular national touring band O.A.R. headlining the event.

Although temperatures dipped down around 30 degrees, people braved the chilly weather at Freakfest 2009 to show off their costumes and take in musical acts that included alternative-rock hitmakers Third Eye Blind, Cage the Elephant, Push Play, Locksley and the Nod, among others.

Last year, Freakfest featured two main stages of music and a costume contest. Bands such as OK Go and Little Big Town entertained revelers. Organizer Frank Productions also brought in the bands My Dear Disco and Stealing Angels as well as local acts Aaron Williams & the Hoodoo, Daniel & the Lion and Mike Droho & the Compass Rose for the night’s musical entertainment.

For Freakfest 2011, the punk rock band All Time Low is performing. Other musical acts include Neon Trees, the Ready Set, MURS, Locksley, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, the Big Strong Men and Quiet Corral. DJ Will Calder will be spinning all night on Frances Street, organizers said. Besides the music, there will be a costume contest with the crowd voting for the winners.

Advance tickets are on sale for Freakfest 2011 and cost $8. Tickets will be available on the day of Freakfest at booths near the entrances beginning at noon and continuing through the end of the event or when the street reaches capacity. Gates will open at 7 p.m. with tickets available at the gate for $12.