ATLANTIC CITY - Debra Smith has been to hundreds of concerts over several decades, but this weekend's Dave Matthews Band Caravan at Bader Field was a first for her - and for thousands of other music fans.
"I've been going to concerts since I was 19 years old, and this is my third (festival) this month, so I've probably been to 1,000," said Smith, a 55-year-old nurse from Nashville, Tenn. "For the first time (at Bader Field), it's not bad. I mean, I was pretty impressed they did so well. I really was."
More than a dozen fans agreed that Bader Field functioned close to perfect as a festival venue - aside from the black dust blown from the defunct municipal airport's old runways covering concertgoers by the time the show ended. Some people had difficulty leaving the area each night because of traffic issues, but their general impression was positive toward both Bader Field and the city - just what officials were hoping for.
Decent attendance numbers - an unofficial tally put attendance at about 75,000 for the entire weekend - combined with a well-behaved crowd and the smooth operation of the event had officials saying additional concerts of a similar size were possible.
Bader Field had sat unused since its runways closed in 2006, awaiting a developer who never materialized. Then Red Light Management founder Coran Capshaw booked Phish at Boardwalk Hall last fall. The show sold out all three nights and prompted Capshaw and city officials to agree that Bader Field would be the first of four Caravan stops this summer, said Ken MacDonald, director of venue development for Red Light's live event promoter, Starr Hill Presents.
City public works crews spent the spring hauling junk and removing overgrown shrubbery from the 142-acre bayside tract in preparation for the event. Seven months of site work, contract negotiations and developing plans for security, traffic and other logistics yielded a festival that drew very little criticism - although much of what criticism there was came from Albany Avenue businesses that lost customers due to traffic congestion and road lane closings.
"Maybe more recycling bins, more picnic tables, more shade - people just need that," Smith said. "There's lots of open space, of course, and if they continue to have a festival every year, the crowd's probably going to get bigger and (the event) is going to grow and improve," Smith said.
Smith traveled to Atlantic City with coworker Leslie Davis, 34, for all three days of the festival. The pair got to the venue Sunday before gates opened at 1 p.m. and waited in line with 28-year-old Jason Denenberg, whom they befriended this weekend upon discovering he lives in the same city.
"I think it's got a good foundation, although there are things to improve on," said Denenberg, who estimated he attends four or five Dave Matthews concerts every year plus another 10 or so shows. "Like controlling the dust, you can water it down at 10 o'clock in the morning and keep it down. But for the most part, it's been pretty good."
Denenberg's sentiments were shared by his fellow fans as well as residents and business owners in Chelsea Heights - the section of Atlantic City surrounding Bader Field - and public officials, including Mayor Lorenzo Langford. Reached at home Sunday afternoon, Langford said he hoped to build on the event's success.
"From my perspective, it's all good. Obviously, things could always be better, but given the first time out of the chute, it was all good," said Langford, who caught Matthews' set Saturday and stopped by the show Friday as well.
Officials will meet soon to review the event and discuss improvements. Langford said he still prefers to develop Bader Field but wants to run such events until that comes to fruition.
Lisa Aricha, 31, of Cherry Hill, Camden County, said she would come back for a concert. She goes to one every year featuring the Dave Matthews Band alone and prefers outdoor shows because they better facilitate socializing - so much so, in fact, that she came to this weekend's event alone. Sort of.
"I'm going with 30,000 other people, I'm not going by myself. You meet other people," she said.
Aricha waited for gates to open Sunday morning with 34-year-old Michelle Palischak, an Ocean City native who now lives in San Diego. They met this weekend in the VIP section. They were disappointed that they were not offered early entry, could not access a bar within the VIP section and that the more expensive area was far from the stage. But both said they would return to Bader Field for a concert and to Atlantic City for a weekend independent of a special event.
Palischak once worked in Atlantic City and said she is aware that the resort has some tough neighborhoods but that she felt safe during her stay this weekend. Aricha agreed.
They said officials could improve the experience at Bader, however, by tweaking landscaping to reduce dust and providing more shuttles and taxis with stops closer to the venue.
Performer Grace Potter said she preferred the setup in Atlantic City to other festivals.
"It's a slightly more sinister backdrop (than other festivals). It's not like there's casinos hanging out by Bonnaroo, but it's definitely of that scale," she said. "I actually like the layout of this festival better than most because it's a triangle. It never seems like you're out of the loop, which is good. It's not like there are hidden corners. It's all right here for you."
Everything, that is, except for spots to camp and tailgate. Both are allowed at Bonnaroo - a four-day concert in Mancester, Tenn., that Starr Hill also runs _ but are banned at Bader Field.
Andrew Camac suggested finding a way to accommodate those activities on site. The 27-year-old traveled from Wilmington, Del., for the festival - that's how he spends most of his free time and money, he said.
"That brings together people from different areas, more than just inside the show" he said.
Although music is the main draw, the opportunity to meet people Camac otherwise wouldn't meet is a major component of the festival environment that he and millions of people enjoy so much they're willing to shell out thousands - for multi-day tickets, travel, lodging , food and drinks - often multiple times every year.
Two hours before security started letting people in Sunday, Camac smoked a cigarette while waiting on a runway with Conal Rosanbalm, 30, a self-described bartender and "budtender" from Denver who's planning to go to all Caravan stops this summer. They were part of a group that mainly met for the first time this weekend.
"I've been to a ton of festivals and stuff on open fields, and I think this space is great," Rosanbalm said. "There's nothing around, there isn't any sound pollution. The dust is the only issue. I think if (the city) started rockin' this as a venue regularly, you could concentrate on the turf and it wouldn't be an issue anymore."
Camac stayed at a motel on Route 30; Rosanbalm did so on Route 40. Their rooms were affordable, although the thin walls cost Rosanbalm sleep and seeing a fellow guest smoking crack outside gave Camac pause, they said.
But that was outside the city. Once on the island, both men found the resort - at least Atlantic and Pacific avenues and the House of Blues - to be cleaner and safer than expected ... and a lot of fun.
"I don't think A.C. deserves the reputation it's gotten," Camac said.
Rosanbalm agreed: "Atlantic City didn't have the best reputation, but everybody has been really, really cool. We haven't met anybody weird, really, not any weirder than Denver anyway. It's been a nice trip."
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