Billy and Shannon Russell got the news on their way to Sunday’s tailgate when they stopped off at Food Lion to pick up some last-minute supplies for the Come-See-Me festival’s grand finale.
“The clerk said ‘I heard you have to pay to get in this year,’” Billy Russell said. “I said, ‘Really?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, that’s why I won’t go.’”
The signature event of Rock Hill’s big spring festival – the closing music concert, skydiving exhibition and fireworks show on the shores of Winthrop Lake – was hit with a one-two punch this year. For the first time this year, the festival introduced a $5 entry fee for the tailgate party, producing grumbling from some like the Food Lion clerk, and surprise in others, like the Russells.
Then on Thursday, the festival board of governors made the decision to move the event from Saturday to Sunday because of impending rain showers, leaving organizers to scramble to book new bands, bring in new volunteers and security, even find a new stage when the one rented for Saturday had a prior engagement on the rescheduled date.
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“Everybody stepped up,” said David Williams, the festival chairman. “We had a couple different bands show up to play with the singers... The police had to get new (volunteers), because some had to work today, and the show pros as well.”
The date change even left the festival with only 70 to 80 of the original 100 volunteers who would have worked the event, sitting behind vendors’ tables and collecting payment from visitors.
“But everybody seems to be having a great time,” Williams said, “and that’s what it’s all about.”
Some may have been put off by weather and the change to Sunday. Organizers estimated between 2,000 and 3,000 arrived early Sunday evening, with crowds expected to reach 5,000 in time for the fireworks at 8:30 p.m.
But others were upset about the new $5 entry fee put in place this year for the first time, on top of the $5 parking fee.
“I could see some people come up to the gate and turn around,” said Andy Garner, seated with friends under the tent they erected for the event with his own wristband and can of beer.
Garner and buddy Robbie Albert say they always try to make it out to the tailgate party even if they don’t go to any other Come-See-Me events during the week-plus long festival. Albert, like others at the event, said he didn’t mind paying the fee “if it goes to a good cause,” especially since it only applies to those 21 and over.
“It’s good that it’s not something you have to pay for the little kids,” he said.
But Amber Williams preferred the previous policy of paying only to get a wristband if you brought alcohol to the event.
“I don’t like that,” Amber Williams said of the fee. “If you’re not drinking, I think it’s dumb.”
Some, like the Russells, didn’t even know about the new entry fee when they headed out to Winthrop Lake. The couple only brought enough money to get in because they planned to buy souvenirs from the vendors.
“I was texting my kids in the car, saying ‘You have to pay. Be sure to bring cash,’” Shannon Russell said.
Teresa Hall was surprised to learn paying for the wristband was no longer optional, even after making her way past the gate. Hall said she didn’t even plan to drink at the tailgate, but paid for the “optional” band “just because of temptation,” she said.
For his part, David Williams heard generally positive comments from festivalgoers about the new entry fee.
“I’ve heard a lot say they can’t believe they don’t have to pay more to hear three bands, see fireworks and all of that,” Williams said. “We’re happy we didn’t have to charge more to provide such a great event.”
Even those tailgaters who were weary of the new charge agreed, because the rain and last-minute change to the weekend schedule, it may not be possible to judge the impact of the new entry fee on turnout until next year’s Come-See-Me.
Bristow Marchant • 803-329-4062