Festival leaders hope this one goes easier


FAIR HILL -- For many people, last year's Fair Hill Country Music Festival in rural Cecil County was like a sappy country song that might go something like this:

"I got stuck in the mud in my pickup truck, and my temper overheated in a traffic jam as tight as Dwight Yoakam's jeans."

Last year's festival, the first in the rolling horse country of rural Cecil, is still a sore spot with organizers.

Heavy rain the night before, limited access to the site and the attraction of the Judds' farewell tour combined to create maddening, miles-long traffic jams, muddy parking areas and lots of fans with achy-breaky hearts.

This year's two-day festival, which begins tomorrow, will be different, organizers say. They expect as many as 30,000 people over the weekend, half-again as many as attended last year's one-day event.

"We're asking people to give us a second chance," said Jody Albright, director of the Governor's Office of Art and Culture. "I know we have a foolproof plan," added Mrs. Albright, whose boss, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, plans to attend the festival tomorrow.

Mrs. Albright is coordinating the event along with officials from Cecil County and state agencies.

"We didn't take it lightly," she said of last year's festival. "We know it was a big problem."

Some folks got so frustrated by the traffic jams, they never made it to the festival.

"There were plenty of upset people. It was a public relations disaster," said Bob Moody, program director at Baltimore's WPOC-FM, the region's biggest country music station.

The station was a sponsor of last year's festival, but Mr. Moody said WPOC managers did not want to be associated with the event this year.

This year, the site has been moved from fields along a two-lane road to the sprawling grounds of the Fair Hill Race Track about a mile away. The new location is the proven site of the county fair, annual Scottish games and steeplechase events, organizers say.

This year's site has five gates into the far more spacious parking areas.

The size of the crowd this year remains to be seen, Mrs. Albright acknowledged.

The 18,000 advance tickets for last year's festival sold out two weeks ahead of the event. Just 12,000 advance tickets have been sold for this year's festival.

"People are saying, 'We're going to wait and see if we can get there,' " Mrs. Albright said.

Ticket prices have more than doubled -- to $22 per person for a one-day pass, from $10 last year.

For Cecil, a county still trying to establish an identity beyond its borders, much is riding on this weekend's event.

Organizers have spent about $250,000 to get big-name artists such as Dwight Yoakam, Clint Black, Sawyer Brown and Tanya Tucker.

Fair Hill, which also features the work of local artisans and activities for children, is one of three summer music festivals organized by state and local officials designed to lure people -- and tourist dollars -- to the far corners of Maryland.

The Tangier Sound Country Music Festival, held June 27 in the Eastern Shore town of Crisfield, drew 18,000 people. A similar festival two weeks ago at Rocky Gap State Park in the Allegany County mountains of Western Maryland attracted more than 30,000 country music fans.

Despite last year's ordeal at Fair Hill, the festival foundation still made a profit of $84,000, said W. Edwin Cole Jr., president of the Cecil County Commissioners and a member of the festival board. And the event generated nearly $700,000 for the local economy, he said.

With a two-day event this year, many more people will be staying in local campgrounds and motels, so organizers expect a much bigger take.

Last year's festival was supported by a state grant. This year, the state Department of Economic and Employment Development has provided a $50,000 loan.

But keeping the festival profitable is not the only goal.

The impression most people have of Cecil, said Del. Ethel A. Murray, "is that place between the Susquehanna River and Delaware."

Added the Cecil Democrat, who also is a member of the Fair Hill festival's board: "Once we get them off [Interstate] 95, they'll see things they can come back to."

Like the thoroughbred farms of Chesapeake City and elsewhere. Like the lush landscape dominated by corn fields and woodlands. Even the remnants of Elkton's quickie-wedding business.

Or Jim and Debbie Magraw's Chrome Dairy and Deli in Rising Sun.

Their store, the sort stocked with everything from pancake mix and fresh mushrooms to fishing tackle and canning supplies, bills itself as one of the last places in Maryland offering bottled milk and buttermilk.

People come from Baltimore, Wilmington, Del., and elsewhere to stock up on milk, the Magraws say.

Chrome Dairy and Deli is one of the local vendors at the Fair Hill festival. The Magraws hope to sell $15,000 worth of ice cream and yogurt. The milk won't be for sale at the festival, they say, but folks need only drive a few miles west on Route 273 to the store in Rising Sun.

Look for the faded green and yellow sign out front that reads: "Jug Milk Fresh from the Farm."

Mrs. Magraw said, "People here have Southern hospitality."

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