DETROIT LAKES - Despite high gas prices and a sluggish economy that has curtailed many people's vacation travel plans this summer, Detroit Lakes' 26th annual WE Fest country music festival is expecting another sellout crowd this year.
"We're almost sold out," said Chyrll Sparks, vice president and national promotions director for Festivals And Concert Events (FACE), Inc., which runs WE Fest each year. "We have maybe 1,000 tickets left (as of Friday)."
With three more days before the festival's official start on Thursday, Aug. 7, that leaves plenty of time for those 1,000 seats to be filled -- and Sparks anticipates that they will be.
However, she also feels that part of the reason for the festival's anticipated high attendance is that a large percentage of the tickets were sold before gas prices went sky-high, and before the current economic recession took hold.
"To maintain our momentum next year, we're booking a really huge show," she said, noting that at least one major headliner, Tim McGraw, has confirmed that he will return to the WE Fest stage in 2009.
But before planning for the 27th annual festival gets underway in earnest, there's still the 2008 event lying ahead of them this week.
"Last year, we did a huge amount of building, so this year our focus was just to tweak everything and make it work a little better," Sparks said. "We've expanded the VIP hospitality area, so there's more room to feed people.
"We've reduced the number of seats in all of our reserved sections, so that people have a little more room. We've also changed the bottom level of the new grandstand into a lounge, with feeds from the jumbotrons so can people can go up there in the shade, have a drink and watch the show."
And what a show it will be. Headliners Rascal Flatts, Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley will be joined by WE Fest newcomers including teen sensation Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean, Leann Rimes, Sugarland and Little Big Town. Andy Griggs, who plays Saturday, is also making his debut, though partner Rhett Akins is a past WE Fest solo performer.
"We have a lot of acts coming here for the first time -- this may be the most new artists we've booked for a long time," said Sparks.
WE B Green
Besides the fresh faces in the lineup, another something new to WE Fest visitors this year is the festival's "green" emphasis.
The WE B Green recycling program, which has been very successful in reducing the amount of solid waste produced at WE Fest's sister event, 10,000 Lakes Festival, is also being implemented at WE Fest this year.
"We got a grant from the state pollution control agency that's allowed us to put in 15 recycling centers, everywhere on the WE Fest concert site and campgrounds," said Sparks.
The audience-friendly recycling program is aimed at reducing the amount of waste generated by events held at Soo Pass Ranch, which includes both 10KLF and WE Fest, by 20 percent this year.
At 10KLF -- held last weekend, July 23-25 -- they exceeded that goal, Sparks said.
"We hit 30 percent recycling this year," she said. "Last year, it was 7 percent. Our ultimate goal is to recycle 50 percent of our waste by 2011. We thought that was a pretty lofty goal, but one of the reasons we got the grant was because we've integrated the recycling program into our show."
Throughout 10KLF, one of the announcers would get up on stage periodically and announce how many tons of recycling had been collected since the start of the festival, as displayed on the "recyclometer."
"Every day, we would talk about reaching our goal (of 20 percent)," Sparks added. "It's the one thing that gets huge cheers. People are ready (to recycle), they understand the need."
The FACE staff plans to give periodic recycling updates on stage during WE Fest as well.
WE B Green Team volunteers will also be going around the campgrounds helping people to "green up" their campsites, by passing out recycling bags and rewarding those who have established recycling centers or made a noticeable effort to recycle waste on their campsites with "WE B Green Bucks," that they can fill out and drop into a drawing box for a chance to win prizes including t-shirts, hats, bandannas and reusable grocery bags.
"They will also have a chance to win seats on the stage for our headline acts, VIP box seats for next year, autographed memorabilia and other prizes," Sparks said. "WE Fest is a much bigger event, but based on our success at 10KLF this year I'm reasonably confident we can hit 20 percent (recycling)."
And while it costs more to recycle waste than to dump it in a regional landfill, Sparks said, "We all know that we can't just keep filling our landfills with plastic beer cups."
FACE, Inc., also plans to expand the WE B Green program next year to find other things that can be composted or otherwise recycled.
Use the shuttle
One other way in which concert-goers can help make WE Fest a little greener is to take advantage of the shuttle buses that will be running to and from the festival regularly during all three days of the event, courtesy of the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce.
"People should really take advantage of the shuttle bus to get out here (and back to Detroit Lakes) whenever possible," Sparks said. "They will get back to their car (in Detroit Lakes) faster than they will get out of the parking lot after the show."
Shuttle buses will be given priority for entering and exiting the grounds; in addition, Sparks noted, the Minnesota State Patrol has warned that drivers will not be allowed to drop off or especially, pick up festival goers at the Highway 59 entrance this year.
"People cannot drop people off at the site where buses are going in and out," said Sparks. "It's really dangerous at night, and the Highway Patrol isn't going to allow them to do it. Put your loved one on the shuttle bus instead -- it's the safe way."
All festival employees are given free shuttle tickets, Sparks emphasized. And even for those who have to shell out the money for a shuttle pass, "It's cheaper and faster than parking (on the grounds)," she added.
But in case of an emergency where someone simply must drop off or pick someone up, it must be done at the Highway 22 entrance, Sparks noted.
Looking for a way to pick up a little extra spending money? WE Fest can help.
"We're really looking for employees," said Sparks. "We have everything from jobs at the recycling stations to pouring beer, parking cars -- just a lot of jobs."
All WE Fest employees are paid by the hour, at least minimum wage, and some quite a bit more than that, depending on the level of responsibility. All employees receive free admission to the festival, t-shirts, parking (either at one of the shuttle pickup sites or if necessary, on the festival grounds), and a few other "perks" that are different for each job.
"We will hire people in teams," Sparks noted, adding that if there are friends and family who would like to work at the festival together, they are willing to accommodate that wish.
Anyone who is interested should visit the official Web site at www.wefest.com and click on "Employment" -- "you could be hired online," Sparks said -- or call the WE Fest employment office at 218-846-1990.