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50,000 forget worries at WE Fest

Despite a little bit of rain and the need for a last-minute lineup change, the 26th annual WE Fest country music festival was judged to be an unqualified success by event organizers.

Chyrll Sparks, vice president and national promotions director for Festivals And Concert Events (FACE), Inc., said attendance averaged about 48,000 for each of the three days of the festival.

"We were at maximum capacity," she said. "I think except for that little bit of rain, the weather was the best I can remember -- cool enough for sleeping at night and warm enough in the afternoon to still feel like a summer festival.

"And security-wise, it was one of the best WE Fests ever," Sparks added. "We had a pretty feisty crowd on Wednesday night (before the festival's official start on Thursday, Aug. 7), but other than that, it was good."

Even after 26 years, however, the biggest challenge is still making sure everybody gets out of the festival grounds safely after the show is over for the day, she said.

"It's still a big challenge to get everybody out of there safely," she said. "That's the organizational thing we continue to work on ... It's really uncomfortable for about half an hour after the show -- we call it the blowout."

The concert bowl and concessions stay open for quite a while after the show, in the hope that some people will linger for a while rather than joining in the crush at the exits, but "everybody wants to go home at the same time," Sparks said.

As for the entertainment lineup, Sparks said performers like Taylor Swift and Dierks Bentley, who performed in the afternoon, brought the big crowds into the concert bowl early -- and they stayed put.

"They all came in at once to hear Taylor Swift," Sparks said. "She was way bigger when she played the festival than she was when we booked her -- she's had a meteoric rise this year."

As for the high attendance numbers, Sparks said they were helped by the fact that

"going into last fall, we had already sold 80 percent of our tickets. This show might not have been as big as it was had we not gone on sale early (before the economic downturn and skyrocketing gas prices)."

For that reason, plans are already in the works to make 2009's show "a really special WE Fest ," Sparks added.

Tim McGraw has already been confirmed as a headliner, and "we're working really hard on the Eagles. We can't announce it as confirmed yet, but I think we're pretty close," Sparks added. "We'd like to have some headliners that haven't been here for a while (or ever) -- that's what we're looking at for next year."

Becker County Sheriff Tim Gordon said arrests were down for the fifth consecutive year.

Police arrested 59 people in and around the campgrounds for behavior related to the three-day festival, compared with 88 arrests during WE Fest 2007.

"As far as the event went, it was a very well-mannered crowd for the most part, very few issues of a serious nature, so we're happy," Gordon said.

Authorities arrested 31 people for driving while intoxicated and 28 for misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct and trespass. Charges were pending in two cases as a result of domestic disputes, and five people were taken into custody on outstanding warrants.

The Sheriff's Department also is investigating a sexual assault that reportedly happened on the campgrounds, Gordon said. Details were not released.

Some motorists dealt with traffic delays as people had to cross roads because the campground's tunnel system couldn't handle all of the concertgoers, Gordon said.

Authorities have taken a more proactive approach to the festival in recent years, and campers have grown accustomed to seeing regular patrols in the campgrounds, Gordon said. It wasn't uncommon five or six years ago to tally 110 to 130 arrests during the festival, he said.

"So, we have more people coming to the event, and behavior is exceptional," he said.

(Forum of Fargo-Moorhead reporter Mike Nowatzki contributed to this story)

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454