Pledge 5 owes vendors, others thousands for Gator Stompin'
Published: Thursday, July 24, 2014 at 8:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 25, 2014 at 8:50 a.m.
Bolstered by sales figures from its two thrift shops and years of rising attendance at its largest event, the nonprofit Pledge 5 Foundation set out to make the Gator Stompin' pub crawl its biggest yet by bringing in popular musical acts for a May 1 concert at the downtown plaza.
But Director Jason Bowman said that when planning the event in December, he did not foresee the seasonal decline in sales at the thrift shops, the amount of concert expenses or the meager increase in ticket sales that left Pledge 5 more than $100,000 in debt to concert vendors, employees and pub crawl venues. Now the organization is facing a small claims lawsuit from one downtown venue, official complaints about nonpayment of wages, anger from many of its more than 100 debtors and doubts about the future of the 31-year-old event.
With the thrift business starting to pick up again, Bowman said Pledge 5 has issued a round of checks and plans to pay everyone as much as it can every two weeks with amounts based on the proportion of its total debt they are owed.
“I don't know any other way than to just keep working as hard as I can to try to pay everyone back,” he said from his downtown office Wednesday afternoon.
“I just want people to know that I have a plan and that there's a very good likelihood that they're going to get paid back and that I'm sorry.”
The Alpha Tau Omega fraternity started Gator Stompin' in 1983. The trademark changed hands several times before Bowman, now 43, bought it from a friend in 2005, drawing on his contacts as a downtown bartender and his indoor billboard business to recruit venues.
He founded the Pledge 5 Foundation in 2009 after earning his doctoral degree in psychology from the University of Florida. The foundation encourages volunteerism by offering participants discounts to events in return for a pledge of five hours of community service. Among numerous events, including volunteer days that rotate among 20 different nonprofits every weekend, Gator Stompin' was its biggest volunteer recruiting tool while also bringing exposure to participating businesses, he said.
Under Bowman, attendance grew from fewer than 500 people in 2005 to more than 6,500 last year.
The nonprofit also opened two thrift shops last year, and the Thrift 5 stores became the organization's biggest fundraiser, earning as much as $1,000 a day at the location near campus, he said. Pledge 5 has since opened a North Main Street location and closed its downtown Thrift 5 Boutique.
Based on store sales and anticipating a 20 percent increase in attendance to Gator Stompin', Bowman planned to bring in bigger musical acts for the 2014 event, lining up Grammy-nominated DJ Wolfgang Gartner and Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame.
He boosted staff to plan and market the event, reaching as many as 25 by February.
Bowman said he learned too late the seasonal nature of the thrift business in a college town. Sales dropped steadily after December. Pledge 5 was late on payroll for the first time in February and employees started leaving, dropping to as few as five by the time of Gator Stompin'.
Expenses for the concert started mounting to pay for promotion, portable toilets, police and sound technicians, with the final tally close to $100,000, including $50,000 just for the musical acts.
With deposits already down on performers and other expenses, Bowman said he felt he was committed to the concert and hoped for the best.
Attendance reached a new high of 6,915, but was about 2,000 people short of what he was expecting. Pledge 5 paid what it could but was unable to meet all of its debts.
The Alachua County Equal Opportunity Office received one wage theft complaint and Pledge 5 has until Aug. 4 to deny the claim or make arrangements to pay, according to Jacqueline Chung, equal opportunity manager.
The U.S. Department of Labor received two complaints, one of which concluded with the employee receiving their final paycheck, while an investigator was unable to reach the other complainant, according to Lindsay Williams, deputy regional director of the Office of Public Affairs.
Jared Hansen, who did not file an official complaint, said he is owed about $1,700 for graphic design and other work between March and June.
“He would give me some cash, but not all of my paycheck, so I always felt like my paycheck was being held hostage,” Hansen said. “I always felt like if I quit I wouldn't get the rest of it.”
With no paycheck and no job, Hansen, 32, said he is moving in with his sister in Kansas because he can't afford to stay.
“I don't want to feel like a victim because I'm trying to regroup, but at the same time it's just frustrating to know it could have been a lot different if I would have got paid,” he said.
Beverley Webb, who owns The Midnight Cafe, filed a lawsuit in small claims court on July 11. Webb declined to comment, citing the pending litigation, but the complaint says The Midnight is still owed $550 out of $1,521 in tokens spent for food and drink during Gator Stompin'.
A $760 check from Pledge 5 was returned by the bank for insufficient funds, after which Pledge 5 paid $961 in cash and $10 by check, according to the complaint. Webb is seeking the $550, plus a $40 service charge and $185 in court costs.
Vellos is owed about $2,000 from Gator Stompin', according to owner Shawn Shepherd, who described Bowman as a good friend. He said Pledge 5 delivered a check for $29 this week.
“I've got to give him credit. He's really trying to make good,” Shepherd said.
Bowman said he doesn't know if the trust will be there to be able to offer Gator Stompin' next year without a guarantee that the money will be there when it is over, although he thinks the demand will still be there from the public. He said he has had offers from venue owners to help with ideas.
In the meantime, staffing is back up to 10 people, mostly at the thrift stores. Bowman said Pledge 5 will continue to hold smaller events such as the weekend volunteer days.
“I'm just very thankful that I'm at least given the opportunity right now to make good on this debacle,” he said. “I know there are a lot of people that are upset and they're going to keep being upset until they get their money.”