Record crowds recorded for National Folk Festival

Blue skies and temperatures in the low 80s evidently were the secret to a significant boost in attendance at the National Folk Festival over the past weekend.

The weekend total of 153,911 people far exceeded the hoped-for number of 120,000, and was more than double last year’s attendance.

“Obviously there was a lot of stress about the weather, but look around you,” Mayor Jake Day said as he gestured toward Saturday’s crowd swarming throughout Downtown. “I’m feeling good.”

The festival’s Bucket Brigade also did well. The volunteers who circulated through the crowd were able to collect an estimated $40,000 in donations over the weekend – about double last year’s amount, he said. 

On Friday, city officials anxiously waited for the outer bands of Hurricane Dorian to blow past, but then the weather cleared and the opening night’s attendance hit 45,085, more than 12,000 above last year, Day said.

Attendance Saturday reached 113,434, while Sunday’s attendance was 49,467.

“We ran out of beer on Saturday and had to order more from the distributor,” Day said. “I thought that was a pretty good indication of how we were doing.”

Last year’s total attendance for all three days was only 63,000 due to off-and-on showers Saturday and all-day rain on Sunday.

The attendance figures both years were acquired using cellphone data to track unique users and physical head counts from aerial photos. Day said the numbers are conservative counts.

Festival Director Caroline O’Hare said she was monitoring the winds from Hurricane Dorian all day Friday and waited until the last minute to set up chairs at the stages for fear they would be blown away.

“I’m very happy the weather turned out to be just glorious,” she said.

The free event was spread throughout Downtown Salisbury and featured some 350 performers on seven stages, ranging from bluegrass, zydeco, Texas swing and Irish tunes to Navaho hoop dancers, Appalachian storytelling, and music from China, Iraq and Guatemala.

A Maryland Folk Life area included demonstrations of decoy carving, screen painting and woodworking.

Ruben Dario Corona, a Dominican barber from Baltimore, set up shop for the weekend with his nephew, Oliver Trinidad-Corona, in a festival tent where they gave free haircuts and shaves. Corona has passed on the know-how for fades, custom haircuts and other basics of Dominican barbering to Oliver and other barbers.

Monty Howard of Baltimore, who got a shave and haircut while visiting the festival, said he was glad to meet Corona.

“I’m going to his shop when I get home,” he said.

A family area drew children to watch a Punch and Judy show and Chinese lion dancers, and to join in a bucket drumming jam. Kids also were able to make their own kazoos out of popsicle sticks, rubber bands and straws, and play inside the Plastic Fantastic, a 13-foot geodesic dome, constructed during the weekend out of recycled plastic bottles.

Nearby, Downtown businesses reported good sales as throngs of festival attendees roamed the streets. Roadie Joe’s and other businesses lured in customers with food and wares in pop-up stands on sidewalks.

“Wow!! Folk Festival 2019 is in the books and will go down as our busiest weekend in history,” Roadie Joe’s said in a Facebook post.

As a result, the restaurant was “out of food and out of energy” and was closed for lunch on Monday.

Day said the Brick Room, Maya Bella’s, Angello’s Scoops, Lurking Class Skate Shop and Kuhn’s Jewelers all reported strong sales over the weekend, with some setting records.

A study of last year’s event by the Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network at Salisbury University showed it had a $20 million economic impact, but the study’s authors said the event’s impact could have been as high as $45 million with a larger crowd and better weather.

The same team planned to look at the economic impact of the festival this year and again in 2020.

This was the second of three years that Salisbury will play host to the National Folk Festival that started in 1934 in St. Louis and has moved to cities around the country since then.

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