Hourslong lines, bumper-to-bumper traffic, sold-out food and jam-packed crowds left many attendees of Saturday’s Asia Collective Night Market and county officials frustrated and asking for accountability.
While the festival was permitted for 25,000 attendees, a Howard County Police Department spokesperson said Monday that “far more attended who were not ticketed” and that event organizers failed to heed department recommendations to address the growing crowd size and parking needs.
“It was a nightmare,” said attendee Michele Jamison of Eldersburg. “All I thought about was being trapped in there. … You couldn’t get through people, there was nowhere to walk.”
Held at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship, the event billed itself as the “DMV’s ultimate Asian food festival” and gathered nearly 50 vendors from across the region selling a variety of Asian cuisine. Organizers hoped to bring the vibrant atmosphere of night markets, a type of open-air street fair popular in East Asia, to the community but instead found themselves grappling with oversized crowds and a breakdown of parking logistics.
The final number of attendees is unknown, according to Howard County police.
“What they lacked was more manpower,” said Jennie Kwon, the founder and owner of Blowfish Poke in Baltimore, Marriottsville and Clarksville and Mochi Mochi in Clarksville, two of the restaurants represented at the festival.
Kwon arrived at the fairgrounds at 8 a.m. with her 4-week-old baby by her side and oversaw her 15-member staff until the festivities ended at 11 p.m. Within two hours of the gates opening, her stand was sold out of mochi doughnuts, but she had expected her team would be able to resupply as needed throughout the day, given her business is about a dozen miles away.
“What takes us usually 12 minutes to drive took us two-and-a-half hours to get fish delivered or mochi doughnuts delivered,” Kwon said. “It was insane.”
According to Howard County police, traffic was already at a one-hour wait when the festival officially opened at 2 p.m. While police directed traffic “the best way possible for the much higher than expected volume,” the festival organizers were responsible for handling parking, according to the department.
Pictures surfaced on social media of traffic jams stretching for miles on Interstate 70, with some vehicles parked on roadsides as drivers decided to walk. While the festival sold $10 parking tickets in advance, organizers stopped checking passes once the sheer volume of individuals who did not have tickets became apparent, according to a statement posted to Instagram on Sunday.
“Despite the hard work from the police and our staff, we were overwhelmed,” organizers wrote. “We had difficulties executing parking plans and check-in efficiently.”
Howard County police provided 22 officers to the festival, more than the minimum required to staff all traffic and security posts, according to police spokesperson Sherry Llewellyn. Parking, medical supplies and sanitation were the responsibilities of the sponsor, she added.
“The organizer was given many objectives and requirements prior to this event in preparation to include sign boards, lighting, adequate parking staff and buses to help assist with transportation which were not met,” wrote Llewellyn, who said that the organizers were provided a copy of an operations plan on Aug. 10. There “were many recommendations provided by the police department which were not addressed by the organizer.”
“[The sponsor’s] hired parking attendants clearly did not have familiarity with parking applications or past experience at the venue as required,” Llewellyn added. “This created gridlock in the parking lots and on surrounding roadways.”
On the day of the festival, Llewellyn said the organizers were difficult to reach and lacked the staffing necessary to handle the large crowds.
Representatives of Asia Collective Night Market did not respond to a request for comment.
Once inside, festival goers complained about waiting hours for food and lack of water, shade and places to sit as temperatures climbed into the high 80s. The festival was held within a fenced off portion of a field typically reserved for parking during the Howard County Fair.
During a meeting on Aug. 17, police recommended the sponsor move the festival into the more spacious fairgrounds in order to maximize parking, Llewellyn wrote. This recommendation was not taken.
“I waited in one line and felt sick like I was gonna pass out,” said Jamison, who found shelter behind ticket booths that flank the entrance of the main county fairgrounds. She reached out to F2 Entertainment, the company presenting the festival according to Eventbrite, to ask for a refund but has yet to hear back.
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Despite arriving almost an hour before the festival opened, Jamison said her parking pass was not checked and by the time she left almost an hour and a half later traffic was already stretching down the length of the road.
Given the festival’s name, Kwon expected most people to show up toward evening but was “totally wrong.”
“For something cool like [the festival] going on in Howard County, everybody got tickets for it, and everybody wanted to come,” said Kwon, who grew up in Howard County and now lives in Columbia.
Over the weekend, attendees took to social media and formed groups on Facebook and Reddit to share their festival experiences and keep updated on any follow-up actions organizers might take. Some users called the night market their own local Fyre Festival, drawing comparisons to the infamous 2017 music festival that promised a multiday party in the Caribbean and left many attendees without adequate food, medical care or shelter.
Kwon has run food trucks at festivals in the past and knows they can be done right. However, for such a large event, she said it’s necessary to space things out over the course of days, not hours, and ensure more support from local law enforcement.
“It was just too many people,” she said. “I didn’t know how to help. We just had to do the best that we could, one customer at a time.”