Several thousand fans of country music may think twice the next time they're invited to hear top-name entertainment at an outdoor festival. Many of those who attended the sold-out Fair Hill Country/Bluegrass Music Festival in rural Cecil County Saturday spent more time on the road than they did at the festival.
A sellout crowd of 20,000 coupled with heavy rain the day before made for mud-rich parking conditions and traffic backups of up to 10 or 12 miles along country roads leading to the Fair Hill site.
"We left home at 11:40," said Faye Milio of Abingdon in Harford County, who noted that the trip to Fair Hill normally takes 45 to 50 minutes. "And we walked through the festival gates at 4:30." She and her husband, Joseph, made the trip "with a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old in the front seat of a pickup."
The country music festival, held all day Saturday, featured some of the hottest names in music, including the Judds on their farewell tour, Ricky Van Shelton, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Shelby Lynne and others. The $10 tickets sold out two weeks in advance.
Unfortunately, many fans missed several of the performances, which began at noon, and arrived hours later than expected -- tired, thirsty and disgruntled.
People began arriving at the site as early as 5 a.m. and problems on the nearby dirt field that was to be used to park as many as 8,300 cars began shortly thereafter.
"Our biggest problem was we got about 2 inches of rain over a 12-hour period Friday," said Michael Lewis, of the State Highway Administration in Cecil County. "Two inches of rain turned that parking lot into a soup bowl."
While highway crews tried to cover the mud with stones, they couldn't keep up with the demand. The more traffic crossed the gravel, the more need there was for it. And the sun didn't start to dry out the land until noon, Lewis said.
By about 1 p.m. Saturday, a backup parking area about three miles from the festival at the Cecil County Fairgrounds had dried out enough to begin handling vehicles, Lewis said. By then, however, traffic had backed up for 10 miles along the two-lane Md. 273.
"On Saturday, we were getting calls from people stuck in traffic as early as 10 a.m.," said Bob Moody, program director of WPOC-Radio, which along with the Baltimore Sun was a major sponsor of the festival.
The country music station was broadcasting traffic updates from State Police reports, "but then people started calling in from their car phones saying, 'No, it's worse than that.' They were saying they moved one car length in three hours," Moody said.
The festival was coordinated by the Governor's Office of Art and Culture in cooperation with a Cecil County Planning Board. Supported by state grants of $125,000, it was the latest event in an effort to promote tourism in Maryland through outdoor festivals. Other country music events have attracted as many as 50,000 people over three days to Rocky Gap State Park near Cumberland and 14,000 in a single day to Tangier Sound in Crisfield.
Ed Cole, Cecil County commissioner and a member of the festival's board of directors, said he saw no reason to offer refunds to disgruntled ticket-holders.
"I'm sorry people were inconvenienced," he said, "but you can't fight Mother Nature. You wait in line for hours to get into Memorial Stadium, don't you?"
When asked if he would handle the festival the same way again next year, Cole admitted that the concept could use some rethinking.
"One of the basic problems here is that the people who put this thing together created a bill that they could have sold three times the tickets for," said WPOC's Moody, noting that the $10 ticket price was a bargain for the scheduled entertainers. "It was a monster bill. Then someone woke up and said, 'Where are we going to put all these people?'
"Our feeling is there would have to be substantial changes made in the festival before we would become involved again," Moody said.