Country festival may fall silent East side music show has been beset by debt and legal woes

January 21, 1998|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Call this one "You're Breakin' My Heart 'Cause Our Doggone Money's Done Gone."

Chesapeake Country Music Festival Inc., whose fans have enjoyed such stars as Travis Tritt and Tim McGraw in the festival's two years in Essex-Middle River, might fall silent this year because of deep debt and legal problems.

Its sponsor, affiliated with the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce, owes $90,000 for 1996 and 1997. Three creditors have filed suit. And the chamber's executive secretary is charged with stealing funds from the country festival and the chamber-sponsored air show.

"I can't see how we can have another festival without raising more money," said John B. Gontrum, an Essex attorney and one of many local business figures who volunteered their services to the event.

The festival remains distinct from the chamber as a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation, on file with the federal government. But two-thirds of the festival's board of directors are former officers and leading members of the chamber.

The threat that the country show could be scrapped is the latest in a series of troubles encountered by the group and the county's east side -- not to mention lovers of those twangy tunes from America's heartland.

After the September crash of a stealth fighter jet into a Bowleys Quarters neighborhood, the Essex-Middle River chamber decided to eliminate high-speed aerobatics at its popular Chesapeake Air Show at Martin State Airport. The air show, a big draw each fall, will continue with slower planes and static displays of military aircraft.

The chamber's 300 members also were strong supporters of the proposed NASCAR speedway on 1,100 acres of woodland near the airport.

But that project is being considered for an Anne Arundel County location after unrelenting community opposition and concerns among public officials that the track would not stimulate economic growth as claimed by promoters.

In another blow to the chamber, a former secretary to the organization's executive director is charged with stealing more than $1,100 from the air show and the country music festival.

Authorities have filed two warrants against Lisa Fabiszak, 36, of Wilson Point, who police say failed to appear at her trial this month.

Reports indicate that the Essex-Middle River chamber soon will merge with the larger Eastern Baltimore Chamber of Commerce.

"The business community will forge ahead, through our own resources or through a merger," said Edward Ziegenfuss, executive director of the Essex-Middle River chamber, who retires this week after eight years with the organization. "We are always looking to become involved in events and activities that will enhance our image in a positive manner."

Baltimore County business leaders can draw comfort from one economic fact of life -- country shows are high-risk business ventures.

Other country extravaganzas in Maryland have encountered similar trouble.

In October, organizers of the Tangier Sound Country Music Festival in Crisfield pulled the plug because of rising costs and dwindling attendance. The show, which started in 1990, drew entertainers such as Patty Loveless and Lyle Lovett, but costs have risen as stars have demanded more money.

Officials of the Rocky Gap Music Festival in Cumberland decided to continue only after some hesitation.

In August, waning ticket sales prompted Western Maryland officials to consider dropping the event, but additional corporate sponsorship has allowed it to continue.

Organizers of the Baltimore County show said lack of attendance was not their problem. More than 60,000 people attended the music festival its first two years.

"The first year was special in another aspect," said Nancy Hubers, an organizer. "Tim McGraw announced his engagement to Faith Hill up on the stage. To country fans, that was fantastic."

But the first year, more than $18,000 was paid to volunteer groups such as the Boy Scouts and the foundation of Essex Community College.

In addition, festival officials say fees demanded in advance by headline performers such as McGraw and Tritt left the festival with the estimated $90,000 debt.

Tritt earned $100,000 in June. Such demands by country headliners, organizers say, are the primary reason the festival is in debt.

Three Baltimore-area businesses have brought suit against festival organizers for about $34,000 while other creditors await payment without bringing legal action. Rental Tools and Equipment Inc. of Bladensburg is suing festival organizers for $16,000. The case is scheduled for trial in Essex District Court in May. Image Factory of Owings Mills has brought suit to collect $13,216, and Olympic Fence and Guardrail Inc. of Perry Hall has sued for $4,800. The cases of the latter two companies are scheduled for trial next month.

"We are looking for corporate sponsorship, but if we don't get anything by mid-February, forget it this year and perhaps forever," said Hubers. "We are so upset by this, some of us would pay the debts out of our own pocket to keep the show going. It draws people into Middle River from all over the region."

Gontrum, the attorney, said he hopes creditors are willing to work with festival organizers, or else the event will be history. "If the businesses who brought action against us are willing to work with us," he said, "then odds of surviving are better than not. Otherwise, we just can't keep losing money."

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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