PHOTO BY TEEJE JAMISONJustin Cunningham’s art car flame effect displayed at Compression! Art and Fire 2013 in Reno.

Justin Cunningham’s art car flame effect displayed at Compression! Art and Fire 2013 in Reno.
LOVELOCK - As Pershing County and Burning Man officials negotiate a new law enforcement agreement, local conflict has re-ignited over the counterculture festival. Heated discussion is likely at next week's city council meeting as officials consider an event funded in part by Black Rock Arts Foundation, a subsidiary of the Burning Man organization.

"I've heard concerns from the public that this is a way to promote Burning Man activities in the local community," County Commissioner Carol Shank warned an event organizer from Reno last week.

While other counties experience an economic boom during the festival expected to draw more than 58,000 "burners" to Pershing County, local business owners see little or no benefit from the event. County officials must beef up law enforcement for the darker, less-publicized side of Burning Man. The county jail and courtrooms are barely adequate to handle the inevitable suspects of illegal drug activities, property damage, lewdness, sexual assaults, domestic violence and child endangerment.

Conservative community leaders believe the permissive Burning Man "culture" presents immoral temptations to local youth and are wary of any activities directly or indirectly associated with the festival including a proposed event called "Compression! Fire and Art." Organizers are requesting permits to stage the event in a city park on Friday, June 20. The date coincides with the Nevada State Firefighters Association Conference expected to draw firefighters and families from around the state.

Frontier Community Coalition Director Jeff Munk said he's investigating the proposed Compression event and its ties to Burning Man before he'll decide whether to publicly support or oppose it. He's concerned it would encourage youth involvement in a festival allegedly dominated by widespread illegal drugs, nudity and promiscuity. Last week, he expressed his concerns to county officials.

"I'm worried that we're going to get a lot of 'burners' coming in and what will that teach our children?"

Munk said he's also concerned by statements on a festival website implying that organizers are attempting to promote the event's culture in communities throughout the country and beyond.

"I support arts and culture in the community but I don't want anything that promotes drugs, alcohol or promiscuity," he said. "I've asked to be on the city council agenda to give our findings on this event."

"Compression" has been part of the Reno Artown scene for the seven years and is a "community-driven" event according to organizer Erika Wesnousky of Reno. At last week's county commission meeting, she acknowledged that funding sources include the Black Rock Arts Foundation along with Nevada Arts Council and the Reno Arts and Culture Commission. The event could be tailored for rural communities including Lovelock and Fernley as a part of the state's sesquicentennial celebrations.

"I'm a member of the Reno fire-performance troupe known as Controlled Burn and I am a burner," Wesnousky told commissioners. "I'm a 25-year resident of Nevada and a teacher in Washoe County."

Local youth groups, artists, performers and vendors would be invited to participate in the event, she said. Fire performances by Controlled Burn, interactive sculptures, art installations, art cars and other elements from out of town could be included.

County Commissioner Pat Irwin asked Wesnousky to characterize local public input on the event.

"It has been both positive and negative unfortunately," she said. "There is some support within the community. Outside of this community, there is great interest. There are a number of Reno dance troupes that would like to come here and introduce their youth programs."

In response to an inquiry by County Commission Chairman Darin Bloyed, Wesnousky said she's affiliated with Burning Man as a volunteer but denied any public relations role for the festival.

"The Reno event has been successful so my goal has been to use that as a template throughout Nevada for arts events," Wesnousky said. "Events can be whatever a community wants beyond the fire arts."

Wesnousky said she's received support for similar events in Fernley and elsewhere. Her intent is to facilitate alternative arts and performance opportunities in urban and rural communities.

"My regret is that people see it just as a Burning Man cause rather than an arts and culture cause," she said. "I wish that they could get beyond that. My hope was strictly based on the fact that the Reno event has been so successful so it's obviously a great working model for community development."

Local event organizer Jennifer Osborn said she'll invite performances by the local 4-H Sign Language Club, the Lovelock Paiute Tribe and other groups. An artist and a para-professional instructional aid specialist for special needs children in the local school system, she emphasized the event's potential cultural and economic benefits.

"Last year, Compression! had 8,600 attendees and raised over $100,000 for the Reno community," Osborn said. "This year, they want to take it on the road as a celebration of the state's sesquicentennial and to enhance and showcase the performing arts in Nevada."