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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd People enter the Riverbend Festival site. Macklemore was the featured act on the final night of the 2019 Riverbend Festival on June 1, 2019.

Is smaller better?

When it comes to revamping the 38-year-old Riverbend Festival, the answer could be yes according to organizers, patrons and businesses near the 21st Century Waterfront where the event has been held for the most part since 1982.

While police and medical personnel were responding to the shooting of two young boys outside of the festival's perimeter on Saturday night, patrons and staff inside were unaware that anything was amiss, and they were enjoying both a cooler-than-normal evening, at least by festival standards, and a much smaller crowd at past events.

"In a word, it was very unfortunate, but it was outside the venue and had nothing to do with Riverbend," Riverbend Executive Director Chip Baker said of the shooting.

Throughout the now four-day festival, the small crowds were notable because past Riverbends have claimed nightly attendance numbers as high as 90,000 to 100,000. This year's numbers, also unconfirmed, likely were closer to 20,000 to 30,000 at peak moments, according to several people close to the festival. Baker said the decrease was expected, and he believes there is reason to be optimistic about the event's future.

"The crowd seemed to enjoy themselves," he said. "The numbers were less, which we knew they would be. It made for a better environment. We made a lot of changes. We may not have accomplished 100% of everything we wanted to do, but we made tremendous strides. I think we answered the questions, or the call, if you will, of what the community wanted us to do, which was better, shorter, and more experiences."

Baker has called this a transition year with several significant changes being made in order to redefine the event. Among those changes were dropping it from nine days to four, introducing an RFID, or radio frequency identification, wristband that was used for admission and all purchases, and nearly doubling the price of admission.

All of the changes, Baker said, are designed to bring the festival up to par with other "big-time music festivals" around the country.

Festivalgoers throughout the four days seemed to agree, as it was a sentiment repeated over and over.

"I like the smaller crowd," said Mary Jackson, who was attending with her husband John. "We can walk around. It's nice."

On Sunday, Baker was cleaning up the trash at the site along with the rest of the staff, and he said the next several weeks will involve a total re-evaluation of how things went. That includes gathering input from staff, patrons, sponsors, downtown businesses and the community.

"It's premature to talk about next year. I want to hear from everyone," he said.

"There are things we learned through the process that we will do next year, but it was fun," Baker said. "Change is fun. Any tweaking will depend on lots of input. Did we have the right bands? Did we have the right experiences?"

He said a high priority will be how the festival uses social media in the future.

"I think we did a better job with it this year, but it can be improved. I won't go into detail, but I think we stepped up in a larger way than ever before, but there are things we can do and will do next year."

Riverbend, like many festivals around the nation, doesn't release attendance numbers, but Friday night with country superstar Keith Urban headlining was by far the largest night attendance-wise. Saturday and Wednesday, when rock band Weezer was the headliner, were the smallest by comparison. Friday night with Lionel Richie headlining was in between the two.

Board member John Sorrow also said social media will be a big emphasis next year and that this was a major transitional year.

"We knew this would be a big change, but we are moving forward," he said.

As the War & Treaty, a powerhouse duo featuring husband-and-wife act Tanya and Michael Trotter, prepared to perform on the Bud Light Stage on Saturday, Whitney Orr and Marty Smith of Asheville, North Carolina, found a park bench overlooking the Southern Belle riverboat.

'This is beautiful," Smith said.

They made the trip to see Macklemore, Saturday's headliner. She said she's been to Chattanooga many times, but never to the festival.

"It seems kind of deserted. It's nice, though."

On Sunday, she was less enthusiastic about the festival, but glad she got to see Macklemore.

"Not an amazing festival, but not awful either. Got to see the guy I came to see," she wrote in a Facebook direct message.

Restaurants such as Lupi's, Sitar and Hennen's near the site said business was erratic, but overall good, especially during lunch hours, during the four days.

"You know it depends on the acts," said Tim Hennen. "We had a really good Thursday and Friday, but Wednesday and Saturday were down." His restaurant sits right next to the main festival entrance.

"I don't know if that was the acts or what. We did have good lunches and it seemed to carry over with large parties coming in around 3:30 [p.m.]," Hennen said.

It's too early to know what next year will bring, but Baker said having a full year to work on it will help. He said the board started planning for change two years ago, but didn't decide on the big decisions, such as cutting the number of days, until about August of last year.

"If I had a magic wand and could go back, it would be to give us more time," Baker said.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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