Blues Fest cut short

June 01, 2003|By JULIE E. GREENE

Reports of nearby lightning and possible 60 mph winds forced an early end to Saturday's portion of the eighth annual Western Maryland Blues Fest in downtown Hagerstown.

The final four acts of the day, including headliner and blues legend John Mayall, were canceled because of safety concerns related to the weather.

Julie Donat, vice chairwoman of the festival, said she realized canceling the remaining acts was not a popular decision. That became especially true when the sun came out half an hour later.


"It's a tough decision to make," said Blues Fest founder and event chairman Carl Disque. "We did the best we could with the radar.

"Right now the sun is out a little, and that makes the decision a little harder, but you don't know if it's going to stick around," Disque said.

As of 4:42 p.m., Disque said he wasn't convinced organizers had made a bad call.

Most of the storms and severe wind went to the south and north of Hagerstown, acting Hagerstown Fire Chief Richard Kipe said.

"We could not be certain that the lightning and the severe winds would not come downtown," Kipe said.

They couldn't wait for the winds and lightning to arrive to start evacuating the crowd from Public Square, Kipe said. Organizers were concerned for the safety of people standing in the streets with umbrellas or under aluminum tents.

Tough decision

Around 3 p.m., organizers announced they were delaying concerts because of the weather. By 3:30 p.m. they had seen several storm systems with lightning heading toward the area on radar and canceled the remaining events for the day, Hagerstown City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman and Public Information Manager Karen Giffin said.

Organizers first went to a command vehicle and later met at the 911 dispatch center to check weather radar and gather reports of lightning in the Fairplay and Huyetts Crossroads areas before making their final decision, they said.

Roger Lyle, 48, of Wheaton, Md., and his fiance, Joan Erdesky, 45, of Hagerstown, arrived in time to see one great hour of Maria Muldaur before the rains came, they said.

While the two said they understood the safety issue with lightning, they were surprised that an event advertised to last until 7 or 8 p.m. didn't have indoor activities.

"It would be nice if they had some kind of backup plan," Lyle said.

Kathleen and David Hoza picked this blues festival over one in Pittsburgh this weekend, even though they live just outside the Steel City. They said the Hagerstown event had a better lineup and they had great times at the previous Western Maryland Blues Fests.

David Hoza said the cancellation of acts due to bad weather might discourage them from coming again.

Hoza said he had been to another blues festival that continued despite bad weather. He wanted to know why the acts couldn't perform during breaks in the rain.

Organizers said the break in the weather looked brief on the radar.

Donat said organizers had considered using indoor venues for backups, but it didn't make financial or logistical sense. For example, to use the Maryland Theatre nearby as a backup site the group would have to pay to book the theater and turn away customers because the theater seats only 1,200 people, Donat said.

People could occasionally be heard downtown shouting out that they wanted their money back as crews disassembled the stages. Tickets cost $25 at the gate for adults.

Zimmerman said there was a sign at the main gate notifying customers that the Blues Fest was a rain or shine event and there would be no refunds.

"The Blues Fest has been an excellent event for the city. The best we can do is plan for tomorrow and next year," Giffin said.

Rain insurance was purchased for $4,300 for the event, Giffin said. She said she wouldn't know until Monday what the rain depth was Saturday at the Hagerstown Regional Airport and whether the city would get the $40,000 in rain insurance.

To get the money, there had to be 1/2 inch of rain between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday, Giffin said.

According to local weather observer Greg Keefer's Web site at, there was .26 inches of rain for the day as of 9 p.m.

Today's free concert at City Park was expected to go on as scheduled unless there is another electrical storm or a public safety hazard, Giffin said.

The three-day event cost $170,000, Giffin said. She had no idea Saturday whether the event would break even or what the estimated losses would be.

Donat said the festival has $85,000 from sponsors and $8,000 from tickets sold before the event. There will be revenue from fund-raisers, memorabilia sales and soda sales as well as ticket sales from Saturday that had not been counted yet, she said.

Also, there is some money saved from previous Blues Fests, Disque said.

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