PENDLETON — For the fourth year in a row, droves of tourists are camping out in Pendleton for Saturday’s Whisky Music Fest at the Round-Up Arena.
Headlined by rappers Post Malone and 50 Cent, the festival is organized by Andy McAnally and Doug Corey. On Tuesday, an update posted to the event’s Facebook page stated that they expected at least 17,000 people to be in the area with over 800 campers spread around the city.
The same update reported that all the hotels in the city are at max capacity.
While 17,000 is a considerable influx of people for the weekend, city manager Robb Corbett said the city is well-prepared given the annual Pendleton Round-Up regularly brings in at least 60,000 tourists.
“We are accustomed to dealing with large crowds of people coming from out of town,” Corbett said. “This is what we do.”
This year’s festival didn’t come without challenges though, as the organizers had to accommodate and prepare for a larger number of campers staying in tents rather than RVs like years past.
“You just adapt,” Corbett said.
The campers began arriving on Friday and are staying at Fallen Field, the Pendleton Convention Center, Bob White Field, the field behind the grounds, the Hatley Property next to Walmart, along with two newly added campgrounds at the Pendleton High School freshman football field and by West Hills.
Those arriving on Friday had the opportunity to get the weekend’s festivities going early with the “Party in Pendleton” kickoff event hosted downtown from 6 p.m. to midnight. This year, the organizers expanded the party with musical performances from Kurt Van Meter and Precious Byrd along with DJ Sovern-T.
For the campers on Friday, beating the heat was the name of the game. And some got creative.
Kris Dersam and Whitney Adams, a couple from Creswell making their first trip to Pendleton, bought a small inflatable pool just for the occasion. After arriving as the campsite opened at 11 a.m. and making a few trips to the nearby showers, they managed to fill it up just enough to soak their feet and cool off.
“It’s way too hot out here,” Adams said, laughing.
The couple had planned the trip to Whisky Fest prior to knowing the lineup and hadn’t expected Post Malone to be the headliner.
“I was honestly hoping it was going to be more country music,” Adams said.
Either way, the couple was pleased to have the weekend to camp and relax away from their two kids.
Another group of campers is using Whisky Fest as a reunion of longtime friends. Monaca and Blake Markee live in Portland but grew up in Ontario along with Kara Caughlin, who now lives in Boise, Idaho. While Blake said he remembered traveling to Pendleton for high school sporting events, now the city is the midway meeting point for the trio.
As for their first impressions of the city, the torrid sun and 90-plus degree weather stole the show.
“It’s hot as hell,” Caughlin said, laughing.
The group came prepared, though. Blake Markee and Caughlin said they’ve been getting ready for the weekend for at least two months and it seemed to pay off. Their spot was filled with three separate tents connected by a covering and netting that offered as much relief from the sun as possible while the group lounged with drinks in hand.
Unlike Adams and Dersaw, the trio bought their festival tickets as soon as they found out Post Malone would be performing.
In addition to the organizers accommodating the campers, the Pendleton Police Department is assisting with safety and security for the weekend.
Pendleton Chief of Police Stuart Roberts said most criminal activity during the weekend is minor theft and vandalism. He added that the campsites are particularly vulnerable if left unattended during the kickoff party or concert.
“It’s important to have the campsites staffed full time,” Roberts said. “That wasn’t always a part of our thought process but it is now.”
In total, the weekend takes about 6-8 months of planning from the police, according to Roberts.
“Historically we haven’t had many problems, which is really refreshing in relation to other large events that we have here,” Roberts said. “Typically these types of events are a recipe for disaster.”
Roberts added that after the festival concluded the last few years, the police department has met with the organizers to debrief and strategize for how best to handle next year’s event.
While the weekend typically requires more patrolling Pendleton officers to account for the higher population, Roberts said they have also solicited the help of police departments from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Walla Walla, Hermiston and Boardman along with mobile response teams from the Oregon State Police.
When it comes to the event itself, most problems are related to heat exhaustion, overconsumption of alcohol and aggressive behavior, according to Roberts. He added that most problems are minor in nature.
“We manage what we can manage,” he said.
Once the event ends is when the real challenge begins.
Headliner Post Malone’s set is slated to begin at 9:30 p.m., but afterward the crowd of 17,000-plus people will be looking to leave the Round-Up Grounds as quickly as possible. While Pendleton PD will be directing traffic around the stadium, delays should be expected.
“The city just doesn’t have the infrastructure to support that much traffic all at once,” Roberts said.
Whisky Fest’s Facebook update from Tuesday urged people to carpool and “be mindful of the traffic situation.”
The organizers also wrote on Facebook that Whisky Fest has a “Safe Rides Home Program,” which will offer free transportation to and from the event. Nine shuttles courtesy of St. Anthony Hospital will be running from 2:30-7:30 p.m. and then from 10 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. for pickups and dropoffs between the stadium and hotels in the area. The hospital will also be covering all taxi expenses after the event.