THE PARTY AIN’T OVER
By ANDREW MCGINN
On July 12, when the promotion company known as Iowa Chill sent word on Snapchat that River Farm Recreation west of Jefferson would be hosting a “foam party” on Aug. 3, more than 35,000 people saw the snap.
At potentially $20 a head, River Farm owner Craig Flack was happily prepared to pay the $500 fine — or to even spend up to 30 days in jail — for violating a cease and desist order delivered to him that same day by a Greene County sheriff’s deputy on behalf of county zoning director Chuck Wenthold.
It’s like the Beastie Boys once said: “You gotta fight for your right to party.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Flack said recently. “I’m not going to be bullied.”
The 58-year-old Jefferson native sees his 300-acre former gravel pit off county road P14 as an asset to economic development — an attraction on par with Deal’s Orchard or John 15 Vineyard, albeit with more bikinis and way more twerking.
The sheriff’s office, on the other hand, has all but declared River Farm Recreation a public nuisance ever since an event there on June 22 led to two arrests for drunk-driving and one for underage possession. The event also coincided with a fatal auto accident involving Flack’s friend, 60-year-old Ron Kolbeck, of Jefferson, who happened to be helping out with traffic control that night at the River Farm.
What started as a place along the Raccoon River to ride dirt bikes is quickly becoming to rural Iowa in the summer what South Padre Island is to college students in the spring.
Flack, the farmer-turned-playboy at the center of it, is putting it all on the line Saturday for his second Summer Bash of the season.
As it turns out, Flack won’t be facing a potential fine after all this weekend for hosting another River Farm Summer Bash — this one dubbed “The Sequel.”
Wenthold relented last week, granting Flack a one-day reprieve to host the Summer Bash in light of his order that the River Farm should be zoned as a commercial site, not a farm.
Flack expects a couple thousand coeds to descend on the site, where they’ll play sand volleyball, kayak and party to the sound of live music and DJs. The night’s headliner, Iowa-born country singer Casey Muessigmann, is best known as a member of Team Blake from Season 3 of the TV show “The Voice.”
And, yep, all partygoers still standing at night’s end will be sprayed down with soapy suds for maybe the first-ever foam party in rural, west-central Iowa.
“This isn’t the lawless menagerie they think it is,” Flack argued. “It’s a beautiful place. All haters can come on out.”
That’s just it — the sheriff’s office already has. On several occasions.
“It’s been a problem for quite a while,” Sheriff Jack Williams said Monday, the very day he delivered his final report to County Attorney Thomas Laehn on the June 22 event at River Farm Recreation that drew an estimated 1,300 partygoers.
The Summer Bash is restricted to people 18 and older, and the event is BYOB for those of age.
Williams said he determined that many underage people on June 22 were wearing wristbands signifying them as old enough to drink, but that his office was unable to prove who handed them out — making it difficult to recommend charges.
If anything, the events at River Farm Recreation could give momentum to Williams’ years-long push for a social host ordinance that would punish property owners who knowingly permit underage drinking.
Former county attorney Nic Martino in 2015 was to have drafted a local social host ordinance in response to a rash of rural house parties in the county.
However, the issue quietly died after landowners, upset at the thought of being indiscriminately fined, voiced their concerns.
Laehn hopes to have a draft of his own ordinance to county supervisors by the end of August.
Under current Iowa law, he said, the state’s social host statute is violated only when the drinkers are under the age of 18. Greene County’s version could patch that hole, Laehn said, covering drinkers 18 to 20.
On Saturday, Williams will have two deputies walking the grounds of the River Farm “as I can afford to have them out there,” he said, noting that Grand Junction’s sesquicentennial celebration is the same evening.
Nathanial Brown, a 21-year-old Boone native who first attended a party at the River Farm as a photographer/videographer and is now on board as the event coordinator, said their gate team on June 22 was “handling IDs like they should have.”
Simply put, he said, fake IDs abound on college campuses.
“The issue is larger than what law enforcement in Greene County realizes,” Brown explained.
An off-duty police officer and “10 MMA fighters” made up the night’s security, according to Flack.
“Kids have been trying to drink underage ever since there’s been a drinking age,” Flack said. “We did the absolute best job we could.”
“That’s just the nature of kids,” he added. “They’re gonna try it.”
In the days immediately following the June 22 Summer Bash — the fallout wafted as far as KCCI, which aired a story about it — Flack considered restricting events to 21 and older.
“You’ve got to cater to who’s paying,” he said, noting that at least 35 percent of his crowd is between the ages of 18 and 20.
And, right now, the River Farm is already teetering on the brink.
“My whole goal was to get this place to support itself,” Flack said.
The county’s recent order for River Farm Recreation to be rezoned commercial could put an even greater strain on Flack.
“This could affect the future of this thing,” he confessed. “I can hardly hack it (the tax bill) now.”
He turned to hosting bigger, public events once or twice a year because “the motorcycles alone weren’t going to make payments.”
To ride dirt bikes at the River Farm requires membership in a private club, according to Flack.
Wenthold said that he alone made the determination that the River Farm should be rezoned.
“He’s not the only one,” Wenthold said. “There’s going to be more than this one.”
While Flack and Brown question the timing of the order, Wenthold said the events of June 22 showed the River Farm to be a commercial enterprise.
“He’s made it known it’s now his business,” Wenthold said. “He’s been very open that this is his livelihood.”
Laehn, who stressed that county agencies are independent of each other, echoed Wenthold.
“It’s not a coincidence this is all happening at once,” Laehn said. “The events out there drew attention to how the land was being used.”
County Assessor Adam Smith was admittedly caught off guard by the order for a change in zoning.
Smith said he was unfamiliar with zoning issues in rural parts of Greene County, little of which is zoned commercial.
“His area used to be a gravel pit,” Smith observed. “Shouldn’t that already have been zoned commercial?”
According to Wenthold, only the old hole itself — now a small lake with a depth of 25 feet — would be zoned commercial.
It will be up to Smith to determine the highest and best use of Flack’s land, which has a mix of crop ground and pasture. There’s also a house on the site.
“It’s a can of worms,” Smith said. “I’m going to have to peek inside as well.”
Brown, the event coordinator, sees Wenthold’s order as part of an “agenda for somebody in the county.”
“Craig’s been operating out there for five years,” Brown said. “It seems like a real convenient time to change all that.
“It definitely seems there’s an agenda being put in place that involves the death of River Farm. In the eyes of the county, all the River Farm is, right now, is a party spot. It’s more than that.”
To Flack — who envisions the River Farm’s Summer Bash as a potential rival one day to River Ruckus in Guthrie County — local officials don’t see what he sees.
“This place is too valuable. It’s too needed in the community,” he said.
That said, even the state of Iowa has a dog in the fight, having shut down both his zip line and giant slip and slide last year after serious injuries on both.
The injuries, Flack said, happened in clear violation of his rules.
Even still, they’ve generated two separate lawsuits, Flack said.
At an event last summer in conjunction with RAGBRAI’s overnight stay in Jefferson, five people went down the giant slip and slide at the same time, with one of them breaking a leg.
Another time, Flack said, after-hours trespassers climbed atop the zip line. Two girls, he said, tried to ride the zip line “on a handle made for one.” When they fell, one broke her back.
Flack said the slip and slide will be operational Saturday for the first time in more than a year. He thinks he found a way around the Iowa Department of Public Health’s order to have it regulated like a municipal swimming pool or a spa.
Earlier this week, he simply filled in the pool full of pond water at the bottom of the slide. Riders will instead be slowed down by a gradual leveling of the slide and shallow water, he said.
“I’m trying to make an honest living,” he said.
Flack blames the recent spate of bad publicity for raising his one-day event insurance premium from $471 for the June 22 event to $2,962 for Saturday’s bash.
“I’ve spent my whole life in this valley for recreation,” he said. “It was a dream of mine to have something like this.”
Especially painful for Flack was having River Farm’s June 22 event tied to the death of his friend, Ron Kolbeck.
Kolbeck, who had been helping at the event, died on the way home after his pickup truck struck the rail of Eureka bridge shortly before midnight June 22.
While Kolbeck’s blood alcohol level of 0.218 was well above the legal limit of 0.08, the Polk County Medical Examiner on July 6 ruled his death natural. The cause was listed as cardiovascular disease, although it was unsure if he suffered cardiac arrest before or after the crash.
Kolbeck on May 5 had been seen at the emergency room for chest pain.
“He died of a heart attack,” Flack said. “I feel so bad he got drug through the (expletive).”
Kolbeck’s family will spread his ashes at the River Farm later this summer.
When it comes to the River Farm’s future, Flack is equal parts combative and conciliatory.
“We’re not going away,” he said. “We’re not going to bow down to any of them.”
But, he adds, he’ll do “whatever we have to do to make it right.”
That means proceeding with commercial rezoning — with a catch.
“If they want to zone me commercial,” he said, “I want a 20-year tax abatement like they give everyone else.”