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Bonnaroo concertgoers fill the field last Sunday. Because of costs incurred by the county from the festival that brought 90,000 people this year, the drugs many brought, the two deaths and the traffic tie-ups, some people in Coffee County are talking about whether the event is worth the trouble.
By LEON ALLIGOOD
MANCHESTER, Tenn. ? The three-day party in the cow pasture, officially known as Bonnaroo 2004, is over.
As crews on Friday continued to haul away a mountain of trash created by 90,000 visitors, Coffee County residents had begun sorting through a mountain of concerns about the annual event.
With two deaths of patrons, the first in the event's history, many have said the festival is no longer just a weekend of good vibes and good fun. Some Coffee Countians have said the honeymoon with Bonnaroo is over. They have raised questions about security with such a large crowd and what they think is a ''wink and nod'' attitude toward drug use.
Others note that organizers have been good corporate citizens on their way to making Bonnaroo one of the top music events in the world and making Manchester a destination spot for tourism.
To many Coffee Countians, however, the Bonnaroo organizers' greatest accomplishment is making good on their promise to improve traffic flow.
There's a lot to debate before the Roonies return in 2005. Below are talking points that probably will be fodder for debate in the months ahead.
Since the first Bonnaroo, when waiting times to enter the compound stretched past 24 hours, the event has become synonymous with long lines and traffic bottlenecks. Can it become a friendlier event to locals?
Improvements still needed
''We've got issues,'' Sheriff Steve Graves said.
He said not all of Bonnaroo's entrance booths were operating. The festival had promised 60 booths, double what had been available in 2003.
If all of the booths had been manned, ''we think that would have cut down on the time to get them in,'' said Graves.
As it turned out, law enforcement was on traffic alert 24 hours a day, from Wednesday into Friday, as Bonnaroo fans arrived in waves.
''After about 26 hours we thought we had everybody in, then another influx came, boom. It was almost 56 hours before we got every person in,'' Graves said.
Some fans, such as Francesca Womack of Redmond, Wash., never made it inside because of a six-hour wait in traffic.
On opening night, while Bob Dylan ? one of the acts she wanted to see ? was performing, Womack was stuck in traffic on Highway 55 with hundreds of others.
''I've waited in long lines before, but after about six hours you wonder what am I paying money for. I can do this anywhere,'' she said.
Instead, she and a friend headed to Nashville and attended the CMA Music Festival. Since her return home, she's made an official complaint against Bonnaroo to Tennessee's tourism commission.
Better than last year
Rick Farman, Bonnaroo spokesman, said traffic and the weather are two components of the organization's planning that can only be predicted up to a certain point.
He said he does not have an answer yet for Sheriff Graves about the entrance booths used.
''The whole logistics of the parking situation is rather complicated. I'm still reviewing with my staff what actually happened. If we don't feel that it's at the efficiency that it should have been, we'll make adjustments to make it more efficient,'' Farman said.
The spokesman said Bonnaroo can and will improve on the traffic situation.
''Each year as we experience different patterns in traffic and get experience on what adjustment can be made to improve the situation, then we're learning more,'' he said.
''From what I've heard both from our patrons and people in the community, traffic was better.''
Alma Gibbs, who lives in the Hillsboro community of Coffee County, said she agreed.
''It seems every year they are learning how better to route people and what to look for,'' she said while putting groceries into her car at Wal-Mart.
''The only problem I have ever had with Bonnaroo is the traffic. If you live in a certain area or if you needed to get to a certain area, you might as well just hang it up and wait.
''It was better this year.''
The drug question
Bonnaroo and other outdoor music events have a reputation among fans for being drug-friendly. Last weekend's event was no exception.
On-site medical teams treated numerous overdoses, and two deaths have been tentatively linked to drug use.
Authorities made 27 arrests and issued 132 citations, the majority for drug violations. Officers seized all kinds of prohibited items, including mushrooms, Ecstasy, LSD, marijuana and 78 tanks of nitrous oxide, which supposedly produces a very quick high and is popular at outdoor concerts.
Many more cases could have been made, according to law enforcement officers.
Suzie Sain is the part-time manager of Calamity Jane, a variety store near downtown Manchester. She wondered why more arrests weren't made.
''How can it be legal? They won't tolerate drugs in Coffee County. It's the Number One concern, to clean up the drugs, yet all these come in June and it's allowed,'' Sain said.
''Why is that?''
Drug answer ? the law
It's not a question that Sheriff Graves, who called last weekend ''a drug fest,'' hasn't heard before.
''It bothers us, it really does, but it's not something we can really stop.''
He doesn't have the manpower, Graves explained.
''The most we could summon up at one time was 150. One hundred and fifty people would be useless, but we did the best we could.''
Bonnaroo's security could do a better job, he added. Searches of vehicles as they enter the premises could be more thorough, even though Graves understood that would take more time and would mean more of a backup on the highways.
It's not that the officers couldn't enter Bonnaroo's gates, the sheriff added. ''We've got every right to go inside that venue, but we don't have enough officers and can't summon enough officers,'' Graves said.
''Now we did go in when we would get information where a certain dealer would be and work with Bonnaroo's security to get them extracted. It worked out pretty well, but we did not want to go in there in a police force and start a riot.
''Frankly, we don't have enough people to handle it if it did start.''
Drug discussion ? a festival fan
Matthew Heckaman, 23, of South Bend, Ind., attended his second Bonnaroo last weekend. He said there was a marked difference in the number of available drugs there from 2003 to 2004.
''Any street you walked down inside of Bonnaroo, you could find anything you want. People even walked by our campsite the first day trying to sell Ecstasy, mushrooms, Molly, whatever,'' Heckaman said. Molly and Ecstasy are slang names for MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine).
Heckaman was one of several festival attendees who complained about this year's Bonnaroo via e-mail. He was later contacted by phone.
''The hard drugs were way more abundant this year,'' Heckaman said, noting that the weekend was spoiled for him by a couple with a baby who camped next to his group.
''They had, like, a 1-year-old and they were shooting up heroin in front of the child,'' the young man said.
''I don't know what you can do to improve security. You're always going to have drugs at something like that,'' he said.
''The harder the drug is, the better they are going to hide it when they come in.''
Drug response ? Bonnaroo
Festival spokesman Farman said there were two security checks. First, every car that entered the campground was searched for prohibited items such as weapons and drugs, but Farman also acknowledged that that search was not thorough.
''That search is one that looks for items that one can search for in the amount of time you have and in a car that's packed up, but we do take that search very seriously,'' Farman said.
''Secondly, we search the bags of patrons coming into the concert venue, just like you would in a stadium or amphitheater. That's what we do and we feel that's on par or exceeds what most concert facilities or events do,'' he added.
Farman noted that there were no significant acts of violence. In fact, Sheriff Graves said there were few assaults and credited Bonnaroo's security for doing a better job of crowd control.
''For 90,000 people in four days, I think you'd be hard pressed to find somebody who can match that, be it a city or an event,'' Farman said.
But there were two deaths.
Again, the spokesman said the organizers would review polices and procedures. He reiterated Bonnaroo's official anti-drug position. ''It's very clear. Anyone who is doing anything illegal, they are responsible for their actions,'' he said.
Hidden costs of a good time
Bonnaroo is run by private companies that don't have to reveal their profit margins, but with 90,000 tickets sold at $164.50, the gross on ticket sales is nearly $15 million.
True, their overhead is enormous. Organizers have to create a mini-city and a first-rate concert venue out of a cow pasture.
But locals question, what's in it for us?
Rueing the Roo
County Mayor Ray Johnson admits he probably sounds like ''an old fogey, someone who's forgotten how to have a good time.''
He said that description is not true, but said it's time for Bonnaroo to pay more for the inconveniences caused by the annual festival.
''A lot of people go away for the weekend. They don't go shopping in town because they don't want to be caught in traffic. There are several businesses that make money on Bonnaroo, but there are many that don't,'' he said.
The county loses money on the event, Johnson speculated.
''It does cost the county money in ways they don't even think about,'' he said, mentioning in particular the training for law enforcement officers and the loss of sales-tax revenue because of a reduction in sales at local stores.
''They would have been better off if they hadn't fought the tax,'' said the county mayor, referring to a failed initiative earlier this year to levy a $7 surcharge on each ticket.
This year, for the first time, the county demanded that each Bonnaroo vendor purchase a business permit so the county could collect sales taxes.
''It still too early to know if that helped. We'll have to wait and see,'' he said.
Meanwhile, the county mayor said the two deaths at Bonnaroo have changed the dynamics of the relationship between the festival and its host community.
''People say Bonnaroo has put Manchester on the map. Well, it did. But do we want to be on the map for that? That's the question we have to ask ourselves.''
According to Bonnaroo's Farman, the promoters will pay an estimated $1.4 million in taxes and have already helped local charities raise $180,000. Other donations to charities are forthcoming, he promised.
''We are here to help the community,'' Farman said during a news conference before this year's festival.
Ed Holland, a local real estate agent and one of four major landowners who rented property to the festival, said he is nothing but impressed with the organization's corporate philosophy and skills.
''The military could take some lessons from those people, how they organize. Safety is utmost in their mind,'' said Holland, who rents 90 acres for camping.
''It's an asset to this area. Granted there's some people who are inconvenienced because of the traffic, I understand that. But the Titans inconvenience people. A Vanderbilt football game inconveniences people. Life is that way,'' he said.
The deaths at Bonnaroo were ''tragic, but it happens,'' said Coffee County resident Mike Carter.
''Percentage-wise if they had two people die in Tennessee over Memorial Day weekend, they'd be tickled to death. It's just people not using good judgment. Personally, I'd rather them not use good judgment out there than on the interstate when I'm on it,'' he said.
i went. and i garuntee you there will be a bonnaroo next year. word floating around was that clearchannel communications had bought bonnaroo this year. clearchannel will not let this endless profit margin of a festival die down anytime soon.
I saw two people getting busted by police. one kid with a gigantic bag of mushroom chocolates, with just one sheriff talking to him. and another that got swarmed by 5 sheriff's on 4 wheelers and 2 on foot that tackled him. the thing is there were only a few spots where the sheriffs could go, despite what the article said. They seemed to be limited to the roads that went in between things. The 2 shakedown streets that were setup cut through camping areas, so that was just a free for all with no concerns at all.
as for people being disturbed by traffic and drug use at the festival, i think you have to be absolutly mentally retarded to not expect a group of close to 100,000 people that about 95% of are drug users to bring there own peice of drug culture with them. how could you not expect 30,000 or more cars flooding in on 2 roads in 1 day to cause a giant traffic mess. how could you not expect dealers to try an earn some cash off of a group of people so entranced by the concept of a consequence free zone with good music and intense 24 hour partying. people shouldnt complain about things that are unavoidable.
i think the key is not to stop the drugs(because that would never ever happen), but to have people better trained to deal with them. an idea i had was for them to hand out a pamphlet on safe drug use, so that people wouldnt take E and ketamine and do coke and oxycontin and then eat mushrooms all at the same time and wonder why they freaked out. not any of that DARE bullshit, but real information that these uninformed kids can use. another thing they need is people who understand how to deal with bad trips and people trained to deal with overdoses. I saw a kid in the medical tent while i was getting my 2nd degree burns treated totally freaked out. shaking in a fetal position, babbling nonsense, so afraid. and the people in the medical tent said they couldnt do anything for him. they just let him sit there, and when they tried to talk to him they said all the wrong things like "i think you took too much", "i hope you dont stay this way", just making the kid even more afraid. anyways, now im just raging on and on, so i will stop.
bonnaroo has problems, but it also has developed an amazingly beautifull community of people in the same mindset. Except for a few beligerent people i ran into, everyone was so kind to me.
I went to bonnaroo this year, and it was amazing. I waited in line to get in on thursday morning and waited five and a half hours. I didnt care, and i did expect the traffic to be very heavy. I think the drug scene was very heavy, but it did not bother me. It is peoples choice to do what they want to do, people selling did walk buy people saying mushrooms and crap like that but if you didnt want it, you keep walking, it was never in your face pushing drugs. The security was very cool, even one cop at a gas station before I went into the line to get in was talking about drinking in the cars, and if you didnt want to drink do something that you enjoy, meaning smoking herb. Also one security officer before i entered the stage area say my glass bowl and buds, and told me to be careful of dropping my bowl because lots of people are bare foot and could cut their feet on my glass. hehe BOnnaroo was awesome, and should remain going, it really was a life changing event, and for the better. Rob