A huge country music festival on a small island? Tim Niese made it happen, drawing the likes of Toby Keith, Kid Rock and — this year — Luke Bryan to play at one of Put-in-Bay's most popular weekends of the year.
Tim Niese sat in his white Lincoln Navigator, waiting to drive onto a Miller Ferry to take him to South Bass Island and the village of Put-in-Bay. The entrepreneur had been working to stage a day-long country-music festival on the island for five long years, an almost insurmountable challenge for a fledgling independent promoter of a new event in a location many people outside the region didn’t even know existed.
But the opportunity to book the essential major headlining act had come quickly, unexpectedly. While in Detroit scouting local and regional bands to play at his Put-in-Bay bars, Niese met a sound engineer who knew country superstar Toby Keith’s tour manager, Dave Milan. A meeting in Nashville with Keith’s agent followed.
Six months later, in September 2016, Milan was sitting beside him in the Lincoln Navigator, ready to check out the festival venue.
Niese had his pitch prepared, was ready to address any question or concern Milan might voice. He didn’t have to say a word. A view of the island, 3 miles away from the shore, was all it took to sell Milan on the idea of Keith performing there.
“When we pulled up to the Miller Ferry, he looked at me, and he said, ‘We’re doing this show,’” Niese recalls.
Milan’s conviction only increased after they reached the island and Niese drove the half-mile to Put-in-Bay Airport.
“He’s like, ‘What’s this?’” Niese recalls. “I said, ‘This is where we’re doing it.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, hell! Are you kidding me? You’re going to shut this frickin’ airport down? We’re doing this show!’ [Then] he was on the phone talking to Toby’s personal manager saying, ‘We’re doing this show!’”
That Aug. 31, 2017, show was the first annual Bash on the Bay, an event that drew 10,500 people and put Put-in-Bay and South Bass Island on the map for music fans and a growing list of national and international artists. This year’s Aug. 23-24 festival is co-headlined by country star Luke Bryan and rapper Pitbull.
According to Shores and Islands Ohio tourism bureau president and CEO Larry Fletcher, the Bash generates approximately $16 million in economic impact annually, filling hotel rooms, bed-and-breakfasts, campgrounds and marinas on South Bass Island, neighboring Middle Bass Island and the mainland from Port Clinton to Sandusky at a time when summer vacationers are typically heading home.
“Fifty percent of these people coming to these shows have never been to this island,” Niese says.
Brian Waymire, who books country and classic-rock acts into music festivals and similar events throughout the Midwest for the venerable Creative Artists Agency headquartered in Los Angeles, observes that it is “extremely rare” for a festival to be this successful from its very inception.
“There are plenty of examples out there … of independent festivals that pop up, and they’re gone within a year or two,” he says.
He credits the success of the Bash and 614 Events — the business Niese started with longtime significant other Sammie Arnold, a former high-school principal, and son Josh to run it — to an ability to move goods and people on and off the island efficiently and safely, a willingness to spend what is necessary to obtain top acts and a dedication to “making them feel at home.”
“Word travels fast in the business about that kind of stuff,” Waymire says.
Nashville-based talent buyer and consultant Fran Romeo, who booked Pitbull, concurs, singling out Niese’s attention to detail.
“Tim has an impeccable reputation, which is really hard to get in this industry,” she says. “People usually are trying to cut corners in areas. Tim does everything right. He does everything to get the public behind the concert, but also to get the artist behind the concert. And that’s a piece of the puzzle a lot of promoters miss.”
Niese, for his part, attributes it all to sheer determination.
“If I say I’m going to do it, I do it,” he says in the matter-of-fact tone of a self-made everyman who built his businesses from the ground up.
Tim Niese booked his first show in the mid-1990s, while he was a Sandusky, Ohio, police sergeant. The northwest Ohio native somehow tracked down a phone number for his favorite comedian, Gallagher, called it, and asked if he’d be interested in performing at the 1,500-seat Sandusky State Theatre. Gallagher agreed. Niese negotiated contracts with the performer and venue. The show sold out in three hours. Niese called Gallagher and told him he’d be playing to a full house.
“He said, ‘Add another show!’” Niese recalls. “We did — and we did the same thing.” But at the time he assumed his foray into promoting was over. “I’m a cop; I got a family. I just did this for the fun of it. I mean, we got great press off it and the whole thing. And then it pretty much went away.”
In 1997 Niese retired from the police force and turned his attention to developing hospitality-and-leisure businesses in Put-in-Bay, where his father Eugene “Tipper” Niese owned the landmark Beer Barrel Saloon, along with a grocery store and restaurant. Over the next decade he built the Caribbean-themed Islander Inn, purchased the neighboring Grand Islander Hotel and put two swim-up watering holes and a pirate-ship bar between them. A nightclub, pizza shop and yet another bar followed.
By 2011, Niese was thinking of developing a festival big enough to not only attract the people to make it profitable but benefit Put-in-Bay and South Bass Island economically. As a country-music fan, he’d found that “there’s a lot more artist availability for festivals for country than, really, any other genre.” Those artists, he adds, generally draw more orderly, willing-to-travel festival patrons.
He asked the director of the Put-in-Bay Township Port Authority, the body charged with running the airport, about the possibility of closing it and literally renting the runway for a concert. The two men began looking at the end of August, when the number of planes landing at the airport dwindles to an average eight per weekday. The port authority board approved the proposal and, together with Niese, completed the copious paperwork required to request the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval.
Unfortunately, the process stalled.
“The third layer of approval, the guy passed away, and it laid on his desk at the FAA in Washington, D.C.,” Niese recalls.
But the idea was revived five years later, after the FAA approved a request to use the airport as a venue for the Put-in-Bay Road Race Reunion, a tame revival of a 1950s auto race on the island’s roads.
Niese and the port-authority board began considering the logistics of staging a major concert: ferrying tour buses, semis full of stage equipment, food trucks, vendors and thousands of concertgoers to and from the island and accommodating their needs while the rest of the island continued to function.
“You can’t make an error there,” Niese says. “We don’t have a Home Depot down the street.” He wasn’t fazed by the challenge, though. He’d been ferrying supplies for his businesses from the mainland for years. “It’s no big deal for us.”
The success of the 2017 Bash on the Bay made it relatively easy for Niese to book Rascal Flatts, a trio chosen because of their Columbus, Ohio, roots, to headline the festival the next year. He notes that artists were smitten by the island’s natural beauty and downtown Put-in-Bay’s late-19th-century charm when the sheriff chauffeured them around the place in a golf cart.
“Jake Owen took off on a golf cart by himself — he was on the bill last year,” Niese remembers. “He rode around the island and came back to get the rest of his band. He said, ‘You guys want to come see this place!’”
But the festival’s location made getting Kid Rock, a Detroit native locals and visitors alike were requesting to headline the 2019 Bash, a months-long process.
“I had been involved with some festivals in some pretty remote locations,” says Waymire, who was responsible for booking Rock. “But I don’t recall being involved in one — in the U.S., anyway — that was on an island.”
Niese was able to allay Waymire’s concerns with his detailed procedures for transporting talent, crew and equipment over the water. All 15,000 tickets sold in nine minutes. And Waymire recalls that the festival, from setup to tear-down, “ran pretty much like a well-oiled machine.”
“The feedback that I got from the artist was great,” he adds. “They were really well taken care of.”
Waymire ended up booking another high-profile CAA client, Keith Urban, to headline the 2020 Bash, which Niese planned to extend to a second day featuring Blake Shelton. When COVID restrictions canceled the event, Urban and Shelton were rebooked for the 2021 festival. (Shelton upped the event’s star power by bringing now-wife Gwen Stefani onstage with him.) The Zac Brown Band and Brad Paisley topped the bills in 2022.
“That year, Spectrum News 1 did their news from the Put-in-Bay Airport,” Niese says.
Niese is open to diversifying the bash’s country-flavored lineup, as Pitbull’s upcoming set illustrates. He’s also expanding his reach beyond South Bass Island. He recently brought Walker Hayes — the country singer-songwriter who recorded “Lake Erie Love” for a 2014 Shores and Islands tourism campaign — to the University of Notre Dame for an April 15 performance as part of the South Bend, Indiana, institution’s annual Idea Week tech celebration. He’s also planning shows in Columbus, Ohio, and scouting venues in Naples, Florida.
Niese acknowledges that it’s hard to break into markets in a big industry with long-established working relationships. “My way of breaking into these places is [filling] a niche that’s not filled,” he says.
And he’s doing it at the age of 65, when most people are thinking of retiring. Last year he sold the Islander Inn so he could devote more time and resources to 614 Events. He’s motivated by the same challenge that drove him to build his other businesses: providing an attraction, an amenity, a service that he believed was lacking.
“I’m not looking to make this a massive company,” he says. “We’re having a good time. I think when it’s no longer fun, we won’t do it anymore.”