In the beginning, One Spark burned brightly, fanning the flames of passions near and far, igniting the region with talk of innovation, entrepreneurship, and jobs, baby, jobs. The hope-fueled fervor was a heady intoxicant that clouded judgment and compromised common sense so completely that, for a time, there was a de facto zero-tolerance policy for even the slightest criticism of the festival. Like an amorous teenager, Jacksonville was drunk on love for One Spark (it warrants mention that a large percentage of attendees were also drunk in the literal sense), and any who dared point out her flaws — like us — did so at their own peril.
It didn’t matter that some of the most talented, vital members of the team had fled or been led out, kicking and thrashing, following the return of Elton Rivas in 2014, after his KYN business accelerator crashed and burned as anyone who knew anything about its inner workings could have anticipated, for billionaires do not remain rich by ignoring all accountings of their expenditures. It didn’t matter, in spite of event benefactor Peter Rummell saying point-blank that he was not going to keep footing the bill for the World’s Largest Crowdfunding Festival, that in the very near future it had to become sustainable, for as the event drew near, the list of high-ticket musicians and speakers grew ever longer and more illustrious. It didn’t matter that creators, attendees, venues and sponsors from years past were grumbling about the increased length, size, scope and vision of the event. All that mattered was unconditionally supporting One Spark, naysayers (and facts) be damned.
Alas, as is oft the case, the naysayers were on to something.
Last year’s One Spark* was a brew-haha Lollapalooza-TED talk fusion that, through reckless pursuit of grandiose ambitions, lacked its original flavor. It wasn’t a rapid incubation opportunity for great and groovy ideas. It was a party. Last year, the creators the event was supposed to help spent months preparing, refining and prototyping their ideas, just to suffer six days on their feet in the heat, while all around them a city got drunk on delusion and keg beer. As the festival raged on, complaints from attendees, creators and the media went unheeded and ignored; no one wanted to hear about the iceberg, they were having too much fun dancing on the deck.
It took a few months for the hangover to finally, mercifully set in. One Spark had turned into a colossal money hemorrhage and the time to staunch the bleeding while keeping the whole intact had long since come and gone. Rummell, keeper of the bank account that gave birth to the event, was no longer willing to stroke seven-figure checks to save it. The board ousted event co-founder Rivas; his staff was summarily canned. Long-stifled questions raged; rumors flew. The end seemed nigh.
Then, out of the darkness, a tiny flicker appeared. One Spark would survive another year, maybe more. Pale, shaking, a wretched shadow of its former self, the festival limped to its feet and the city — this time, quietly, demurely — rejoiced to learn that all that hope, all that heart, all the civic pride it had poured into its crowdfunding festival had not been lost.
One Spark 2016 isn’t sexy, it won’t get you drunk on optimism or high on famous musical acts, it won’t give away schwag for days and days. It probably won’t be referred to as “the world’s largest” anything. There are no VIPs this time, no incomprehensible sprawl that makes visiting all the booths an absolute impossibility and raises serious questions about the validity of the final tally of votes. There is, however, an opportunity for startups, local ones, to make connections to and get feedback from people who aren’t just there for the booze, the broads and the spectacle; people, sober people, who actually give a damn about their idea. And that’s what One Spark was supposed to be, anyway — a spark to launch ideas, not an inferno to incinerate everything it touches.
*Note: Goforth was subcontracted as a copywriter for One Spark 2015.