Fair adjusts to accommodate big-name acts

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Gina Duwe
Wednesday, July 24, 2013

JANESVILLE--Authorities anticipate a more controlled audience for country heartthrob Hunter Hayes tonight because it is a ticketed event, which wasn't the case when a record crowd attended Tuesday's Florida Georgia Line show.

The Rock County 4-H Fair set a single-day attendance record of 30,667 on Tuesday's opening day, when officials estimated 8,500 people attended the chart-topping country band's concert.

“We were expecting a lot, and we got a lot more than a lot,” said Rob McConnell, fair board president.

Among the results were people reportedly waiting up to two hours to enter the fairgrounds, a packed grandstand area, an overwhelmed cellular tower and clogged toilets that left many fairgoers asking neighbors to open their bathrooms. Fairgoers knocked down a gate that was quickly put back up, while someone used a tool to cut a hole in the fencing.

A young girl was treated at the scene for minor injuries suffered when the grandstand entrance opened before the show, and deputies made three arrests for underage drinking, Rock County Sheriff's Sgt. Shawn Natter said.

Fair organizers and authorities debriefed Wednesday and plan to increase security for tonight's sold-out Hunter Hayes concert. Because people need tickets into the grandstand for the sold-out show, officials say the crowd should be reduced.

“We're addressing all the issues we've had, and it should be better,” McConnell said. “Safety is number one in our eyes, and any safety issues (we had) we are strongly addressing right away.”

More deputies were called in Tuesday night, and about 23 ended up on duty, compared to the 16 originally scheduled, Natter said. About 23 deputies are scheduled for tonight, as well as some administrators, he said, and officials are taking measures to improve EMS response time by having an ambulance on the grounds.

Increased security around the stage will include double barriers, and authorities were working with the fire department to better manage exits, McConnell said.

“We are prepared now,” Natter said. “We know what to expect with these high-profile shows that are coming in.”

While the fire department set capacity for the grandstand and its grassy area in front of the stage at 4,200—the number of tickets sold for Hunter Hayes—McConnell said officials did not see a need to close the gates Tuesday night because the crowd was spread out over 18 acres.

The dry fair also became wet.

“Obviously, everyone knows people were drinking in the fairgrounds,” Natter said. “It was tough enforcement just with the shear numbers and dealing with other events going on.”

Alcohol enforcement wasn't easy, he said, acknowledging that deputies weren't actively enforcing the ban.

No fights or other arrests occurred, he said.

“Considering the number of people we had, everybody was fairly well behaved,” he said.

Fair organizers had to switch to radios from cellphones when the cellular tower reached capacity. Fair officials can't control that, Natter said, and if it happens again, fairgoers should find any law enforcement agent if there's an emergency. 

Fairgrounds maintenance staff has fixed the troubled toilets, which were just overwhelmed, McConnell said.

While some critics have bemoaned the country lineup this week, there's no question the fair board hit it big. Florida Georgia Line's “Cruise” is No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs this week, while Hunter Hayes' “I Want Crazy” is No. 2. Florida Georgia Line also holds the No. 8 and 18 spots with “Round Here” and “Get Your Shine On.”

Organizers sold 4,200 general admission tickets for tonight's concert, while about 2,000 tickets—a mix of reserved and general admission—remain for Saturday night's Trace Adkins show.

Fair board members said they were expecting a big turnout for Florida Georgia Line but not as big as what showed up. Organizers booked the country act last fall when the band only had one hit, and the band's popularity has since “grown immensely,” said Craig O'Leary, co-chair of the entertainment committee. “We were just fortunate.” 

“When we booked the act, we didn't realize that they would be this popular, so we did not contract for paid admission to the concert,” he said. “In order to do that, you have to get the artist's permission. We just didn't have the forethought to do that.”

He said he didn't know if the board could have altered the contract to add a ticket fee.

“We just didn't explore that possibility,” he said. “In retrospect, it would have been a good thing. We just didn't realize the popularity.”

Last year's Josh Turner concert was the first time the fair charged extra admission on top of gate fees, said Bonnie Martin, board treasurer.

Deciding which acts require extra tickets depends on how much the acts demand, she said.

“It's all a matter of trying to be able to cover the costs of bringing that entertainer to the fair,” she said.

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