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WeFest 2011 deemed a success

EASTON CORBIN, right, and his guitar players Brian Spradlin, left, and Lauren Ellis, center, show off their energy during a song Saturday afternoon.1 / 2
Don't get cocky: Todd and Liz Reiter of Big Lake enjoy WE Fest in the general admission area of the Soo Pass Ranch Saturday evening. Todd said he shot the pheasant on his hat and decided to show it off at WE Fest this year.2 / 2


No matter which way you look at it, the 29th annual WE Fest celebration was "a huge success," according to festival Chief Operating Officer Bob Bliss.

Though final attendance figures are not yet in, Bliss said he estimated that there were between 48,000 to 50,000 people there for all three days of the event, which concluded Saturday at the Soo Pass Ranch south of Detroit Lakes.

"That's what we shoot for every year," Bliss said, adding, "our concert bowl only holds so many people," so attendance can't go above that 50,000 level.

And despite a few rumors to the contrary, there were no deaths or life-threatening injuries among WE Fest patrons this year.

(A story about a WE Fest death that was on the front page of the DL Newspapers website on Monday was the result of an archiving glitch; the story actually came from 2009.)

"We work really hard to make sure that everyone is safe, happy and problem free (during WE Fest)," Bliss noted. "We put a lot of time and energy into trying to alleviate all of the foreseeable problem areas ... anytime you get 50,000 people together in one place, things are going to happen, but we try our best to avoid trouble."

There were no last-minute cancellations amongst the featured artists, and from mid-afternoon to the wee hours of the morning, all of them put on a great show, Bliss added.

Even the weather cooperated this year: Despite the threat of "heavy rains" in Saturday's forecast, conditions never got more than slightly damp.

"We were fortunate again with the weather this year," Bliss acknowledged. "Overall, I think it was just a great show ... no real serious issues or concerns, which is always good, and all in all, I think everybody had a good time."

Part of the reason for that, Bliss feels, is the investment that the festival's new management team put into improving the concert facilities this year -- and with WE Fest's 30th anniversary celebration coming up in 2012, more upgrades are planned.

One of the major modifications was to the Barn Stage and Ranch House Patio area: the stage is now approximately two thirds larger, and there is now a secured backstage area with expanded parking for tour buses.

"Our desire is to do a few more shows with new and upcoming national acts there," Bliss said, noting that the WE Fest kickoff party last Wednesday, with special guest Jerrod Niemann, was just one example.

"It was the first time we had an artist of that caliber (for the kickoff party) -- it went over very well."

The new stadium style seats in the VIP area -- purchased from Comiskey Park in Chicago -- were "a major hit" with the fans this year, Bliss added. "We also upgraded our sound system again, and we tried some new things with the Jumbotrons ... we'll be looking to beef those up a little more for our 30th anniversary."

Speaking of the 30th anniversary, the WE Fest management team scored a major coup when they landed Country Music Hall of Fame band Alabama as headliners for the event.

"Alabama was there for our very first year," Bliss noted, adding that they returned for the festival's 10th and 20th anniversaries as well -- "and they'll be back for our 30th... that's pretty cool."

The other two headliners for the 2012 show that were announced over the weekend are longtime fan favorite Toby Keith and rising star Jason Aldean, whom Bliss said "is soon to be the premier superstar of country music -- I really believe that."

And even with all the upgrades that were done to the WE Fest facilities this year, the staff is always working to come up with new ways to improve even further.

"We're going to continue to improve this site and improve the experience for our patrons," Bliss said. "The new ownership and management team are definitely thinking long term -- we're not trying to maintain the status quo, we're trying to build this company, moving forward."

One of the management team's long term goals, Bliss noted, is to open the Soo Pass venue for more opportunities than just WE Fest.

"It is our desire to put this real estate to work, more than we have in the past," Bliss said. "We believe it's a huge plus for the community."

The High Plains Festival, which made its debut at the Soo Pass this year, will definitely be coming back in 2012, and there may be other opportunities to expand the site's usage as well.

"It's a tremendous site, and if it can be used more, let's go for it!"