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Safety First

New procedures will be implemented at this year's event


After an unexpected increase in attendance at last year's Center CityFest, event organizers at Ark Management were inundated with letters and e-mails from concerned patrons regarding crowd safety issues. If you didn't go, let's just say pedestrian traffic on Saturday night was at a virtual standstill throughout the entire site. Soon after the event, however, Ark's president, Noah Lazes, recruited an experienced festival coordinator from the sunny state of Florida to make certain appropriate changes would be made for this year's event.

Enter Michelle Sarra, Ark's new Director of Special Events, who brings nearly a decade of experience working with multi-day music festivals with her. With help from the city (including the Police Department and Fire Department), Sarra has implemented numerous changes in hopes of making this year's event, now called CityFest Live, more accommodating and, most importantly, safer than its predecessor.

"We recognize that there were issues with last year's event, and we tried to do our best to listen to what everybody said," says Sarra, who says she read all the e-mails sent to Ark Management concerning the festival. "We've been working extremely close with the city -- and they were probably one of our biggest critics. I honestly think they're extremely pleased with what all we've done for this year's event."

Brad Richardson of the City Manager's Office concurs. "We're extremely pleased with the coordination that's taking place between the festival organizers and city police, fire and transportation officials. There's a clear commitment on everyone's part to make this festival a safe and enjoyable place to be."

An important change brought about this year is an attendance cap for each day. According to Sarra, most events of this nature see a 15 percent increase in attendance each year. Last year, attendance jumped nearly 44 percent from the previous year, which left organizers unprepared (to say the least). Although Sarra says she contributes last year's problem more to the actual site layout as opposed to overcrowding, a capacity limit will be implemented for this year's event.

"There were a lot of issues last year, and obviously I wasn't there, but I think the perception was that it was just too overcrowded," states Sarra. "The reality is it wasn't overcrowded; the site is more than large enough to fit that many people. The problem was really how it was laid out -- how the tents were spaced and how the lines formed and such. You had beer lines forming out into the streets that people were trying to walk through. It was more of a flow issue than it was a capacity issue. We did, however, decide to cap the attendance this year just to make everyone feel better. This way, we can plan for a worst-case scenario, which is around 45,000 people per day.

"On site, there's a couple of different things we'll do to monitor how many people are in attendance," she explains. "There are foot mats that people can walk across and there are also scanning systems. We've got enough fudge in the numbers, however, that there shouldn't be any issues with the capacity. We can fit more than enough people in there."

And for anyone wondering, all weekend pass ticket holders who purchased tickets in advance are already accounted for each day, regardless of whether or not they actually attend all three days. This also means that if you arrive at the event with a ticket in hand, you've already been accounted for and you won't be turned away. It's really all computerized through Ticketmaster. We can actually control the number of tickets that can be purchased and literally cut off the tickets once we reach a certain number. Once we reach our limit, we cannot print any more tickets. We'll also know exactly how many tickets we can sell at the gate each day. It's really controlled through printing in a sense."

Another big issue last year was the actual location of the event site, which, for the most part, was on Cedar Street near Ericsson Stadium. Sarra points out that Ark isn't responsible for determining a location; city officials determine the location of the event. "A lot of people think we have a choice, but we don't. The city decides where we can have it."

This year, however, the site area has been expanded. "We did a lot to change the layout of the site," she explains. "We expanded up to the top of Hill Street where our second main stage will be located. We also closed off all of Cedar Street and all of Hill Street, which didn't happen last year. This should provide more walking room and 'hanging around space,' so to speak. We took all the tents off the streets and limited the number of vehicles that can be in there, too. The beer booths will be located throughout the entire event, but the food vendors will be kind of consolidated into specific areas so that should keep the lines off the streets.

"It should really be a much better flow this year," she continues. "We changed the way the entrance gates work to streamline the whole process of people entering. We added a gateway to give people more options of how to get in, and we added exitways so it's easier for people to get out."

A few concertgoers were also miffed with the $5 reentry fee (a fee charged to people who wanted to leave the event and come back at a later time on the same day). As Sarra points out, many festivals don't allow patrons to leave and reenter at all, but due to the demand for the policy, it will be allowed and the fee has been waived as well.

"I've worked with probably 10 major festivals across the country and usually there's no reentry. Once you're out, you can't get back in," she declares. "The process will be, however, if you leave you will need to get a ticket or wristband. When you come back, you'll need the reentry ticket [or wristband] as well as the actual event ticket stub" (an important point to remember for all you drunkards).

Also among the many complaints from last year's festival was the use of gravel for the site's grounds. "I know the gravel has always been an issue," she admits. "I have honestly read every single e-mail that's been sent in with good and bad feedback, and gravel is a very popular topic."

According to Sarra, three-quarters of the large middle lot should actually be paved this year, thanks to the people who are bringing the BMX tour to town. (Let's just hope that project stays on schedule.)

"We're also going to grade the gravel in the main lot. We'll pick up the loose pieces and have it steamrolled so it'll be more compact. The second main stage, where No Doubt will play, is actually a dirt/grass combination lot, so there won't really be any gravel there. Now that we've opened up more streets and sidewalks, there's a tremendous amount of space that'll be paved.

"The reality with an outdoor music festival is that you can't predict the weather and you certainly can't predict how many people will decide at the last minute to attend. That's why it's so important for people to buy their tickets in advance -- it makes the experience so much nicer for everybody. If people don't purchase their tickets in advance, there's no way for us to modify security plans or site layouts at the last minute. It's very difficult because you're actually creating the infrastructure from nothing. It's not like a venue where you know how much empty space you have and you can close your doors and not let anyone else in."

Many other additions include two 20'x26' Video Walls which can rotate and will broadcast the performers live. Firelanes have also been positioned in front of the main stages so police, security or medical personnel can travel into the middle of a crowd.

"There will be a lot of subtle things that people won't probably notice, but they're huge when it comes to the issues of safety and risk management," Sarra says. "I would say that a lot of the comments from last year are very true to form and we began our planning last year in September with those e-mails as our basis. We called several people who had real constructive suggestions or solutions, and we've invited them back as our guests. We've tried to correct the problems, and once this is over, we'll sit down with them and ask if there was anything we missed.

"We've addressed every issue, but it's hard to say if we've effectively corrected all of the problems until everybody actually gets out there." *

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