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Fun in the country sun

Rising country star Cam performs during this year's Willamette Country Music Festival last August. But this year's festival may be the last one: The Linn County Board of Commissioners has revoked the festival's mass gathering permit.

The Linn County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday elected to pull the plug on the Willamette Country Music Festival, moving to revoke the festival's five-year mass gathering permit.

It's the right decision: In recent months, the festival has done little but attract red flags. And the fact that no one from the festival has bothered to show up for any of the commissioners' discussions about the event (or even to submit written testimony) suggests that the festival is, at best, in free fall. 

For the last several years, the festival has been held on the Reed Anderson farm near Brownsville. But Anderson had suggested to festival organizers that they should find a new location. Marion County officials spurned an effort to the move the festival to a location near Jefferson. The last we heard from organizers, they said they were considering a site near Harrisburg.

But that literally is the last we heard from organizers. In the meantime, however, we've heard from other parties:

• The Linn County Sheriff's Office reported that incidents at the festival requiring a response from law enforcement agencies spiked dramatically this year. Lt. Michelle Duncan of the Sheriff's Office told commissioners Wednesday that this year's festival generated 136 calls for service, up from 55 in 2013, just five years ago. Duncan said the festival has failed to properly address alcohol use on the site.

• The festival has been bedeviled by traffic-flow issues, and those became another sore point with the county: Roadmaster Darrin Lane said that in 2014 and 2015, the county and festival management "fine-tuned" a traffic control plan. In 2016, the county was asked if the festival could use that previously approved plan, and approval was given. But Lane and his staff learned this year that festival officials had modified the plan without the county's knowledge. To be fair, the county should have noticed the changes but the result has been traffic issues that festival officials have not addressed. 

• Vendors at this year's festival (and related festivals in Central Point and Mountain Home, Idaho) reported unusually long delays in getting paid for the services they offered. It took weeks for the Sheriff's Office and the Lebanon Fire Department to get paid — and the payments only came after repeated prodding. Other vendors are still waiting for payment, and Commissioner Roger Nyquist said he's learned that some of them have been offered settlement deals of 10 cents on the dollar. 

• Bi-Mart, a key sponsor of the music festivals for several years, ended that relationship after the August event near Brownsville.

• The sister festival held in Central Point has closed permanently, according to the Medford Mail-Tribune newspaper, and the festival in Mountain Home, Idaho, was canceled for 2019.

All in all, it's not a resume that creates confidence in the organizers of the festival (now owned, apparently, by the talent management company IMG, which is owned by William Morris Endeavor Entertainment).

In some ways, it's a shame: The festival made yearly contributions to schools in Brownsville and to other nonprofit organizations that will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace. It provided a four-day shot in the arm for many businesses in the area. And, of course, for every festival attendee who got into trouble with the law, there were hundreds who got their fill of some first-rate country music performances and didn't create a scene.

But given the events of recent weeks, the commissioners made the right call to pull the plug now — and you can make the case that they should have done so a little sooner.

As an event, the Willamette Country Music Festival appears to be history. But you can't shake the sense that there's more to tell about what happened here — and it seems likely that at least some of this will come to light as officials and lawyers and others work to untangle this mess. (mm)

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Managing Editor