Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Countryfest's secret: big names, broad appeal

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Too bad, Thompson. See you, Steinbach. Prepare to be humbled, Portage la Prairie.

Over the next four days, the third-largest city in Manitoba is situated 10 kilometres south of Dauphin, at the northern edge of Riding Mountain National Park, where 14,000 paying fans and another 1,000 volunteers will spend the weekend watching country and roots music.

The gates to Dauphin's Countryfest open today at 2 p.m., kicking off what's become the largest outdoor music festival in the province -- and an unusual model for community fundraising.

The main attractions at Countryfest are A-list touring artists such as Luke Bryan and Carrie Underwood, who headline this year's Friday and Saturday mainstage shows, respectively. Without the big names, it may be tough to convince 14,000 paying customers to make the trek to Dauphin, which is a two-hour drive from Brandon and a four-hour trip from Winnipeg.

"We are the only festival I know of in the world that is 200 miles away from a major city," said Countryfest president Eric Irwin, who's also Dauphin's mayor. "You have to broaden our appeal somewhat. You have to cater to different age groups.

"The magic of getting all these people out to Dauphin is to cater to wide interests."

Irwin describes one segment of the Countryfest audience as longtime fans, typically in their 40s or older, who tend to be members of the Countryfest organization. They get first crack at buying weekend passes, typically reserve the same campsites every year and are more likely to purchase some of the 2,000 reserved seats at the mainstage.

At the opposite end of the demographic spectrum are the teenagers and 20-somethings who flock to Countryfest to attend the biggest outdoor party in the province. To keep the campground under control -- and keep hooliganism to a minimum -- the festival hires professional security and cleans porta-potties five times a day.

"If you create an environment where people know they're living in a fairly civilized place, they tend to act that way," said Irwin.

The long list of festival incidents compiled by Dauphin RCMP after the event concludes every year merely reflects the size of the crowd, he said.

What the festival brings to Dauphin, however, tends to go unnoticed to fans who do not visit the city itself. The non-profit festival, which sports a $4-million annual budget, contributes funds every year toward the construction of community projects.

The latest project is four-cinema multiplex, which received a $400,000 grant from Countryfest. The multiplex would not exist without the cash, Irwin says. With a population of approximately 8,500, Dauphin flies below the radar of major movie-theatre chains.

Countryfest also takes the unusual step of paying a stipend to its volunteers, devoting a total of $100,000 a year to community organizations responsible for conducting specific festival tasks, such as garbage cleanup.

"We have one of the best high school band programs in the province because they're able to make $10,000 or $15,000," Irwin said. "Just seeing the general return to the community is very exciting."

Dauphin's Countryfest receives about $30,000 in annual funding from the province. While it usually posts a surplus, the event wound up with a $300,000 deficit in 2011-12, said, Irwin explaining the red ink was the result of building a new steel roof for $700,000.

This year, the festival spent $80,000 to build a new cellphone tower to improve wireless service at the site. "We never borrow any money," said Irwin, a lawyer by profession.

The festival has no need to do so. Weekend passes usually sell out in one day.

Day passes are available for Thursday's kickoff concert, which features Justin Townes Earle, Lukas Nelson and Shooter Jennings -- the sons of country stars Steve Earle, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 26, 2013 D3

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