Bonnaroo comes alive: How a rural farm is transformed into a musical wonderland

WBIR Contributor John North discusses some acts to watch during the 2017 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester. For more information visit Bonnaroo.comJune 7, 2017, 4pm

MANCHESTER, TENN. - The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival sees a 700-acre farm in rural Tennessee transform into a complicated puzzle that pieces together state of the art telecommunications technology, intricate crowd and vehicle traffic flow logistics and a slate of environmental best practices.

Yes, there’s the music that brings A-list artists like U2 and Chance the Rapper to Great Stage Park in Manchester, Tennessee.

But there’s also the behind the scenes endeavor that features 30,000 people working to prepare the farm and staff Bonnaroo during its annual four-day event.

Here are facts about Bonnaroo’s Manchester property derived from a recent tour of the farm guided by Jeff Cuellar, who is the festival’s community relations.

Eighty-five percent of the festival’s attendees come from out of state, which makes the logistics of arrival and departure extremely complicated. The farm features three entrances, including one off Interstate 24.

During arrival and departure, a helicopter patrols the grounds from above to guide law enforcement on the ground which of the three entrances/exits to funnel people to.

Cell phone towers line the property to keep fans connected during the festival. Signal strength is monitored throughout the festival and the property is lined with charging stations. Bonnaroo was the first major festival to have its own smartphone app.

Marlon Lopez with the Lafayette Tent and Awning CompanyBuy Photo
Marlon Lopez with the Lafayette Tent and Awning Company sews the tent canvas together at the Bonnaroo property in Manchester, Tenn., Wednesday, May 31, 2017. (Photo: Lacy Atkins / The Tennessean)
AT&T alone has 13 cell sites on the property, a company spokeswoman said.

“The partnership with AT&T is a recognition we need each other,” Cuellar said. “We want fans taking pictures and sharing their experience, and they want happy customers.”

*Great Stage Park is home to the largest permanent solar array on a festival grounds in the United States. The solar array pumps power back into the community’s electrical grid.

The hope is the farm could be off the grid one day, Cuellar said, though for now the property still uses generators and is wired for permanent power from the local utility.

“As part of the core and soul of Bonnaroo, sustainability is still something we’re striving for in every way,” Cuellar said.

Ben Fieker builds the planet Roo sign in preparationBuy Photo
Ben Fieker builds the planet Roo sign in preparation of the music festival on the Bonnaroo Property in Manchester, Tenn., Wednesday, May 31, 2017. (Photo: Lacy Atkins / The Tennessean)
— Bonnaroo was the first major festival to require all vendors to use compostable materials. The farm features an impressive composting pile, which the owners allow local community groups to use.

— The What Stage, where U2 and other headliners perform, is the largest permanent outdoor stage in North America, Cuellar said. The stage was added after the festival’s founders bought property in late 2007. Live Nation purchased a controlling stake in Bonnaroo two years ago.

More: After big attendance drop, Bonnaroo at a crossroads

*The property is zoned agricultural, which is why many of the permanent structures are barns, which are the only buildings that can be constructed without nearby fire hydrants in place. That changed last year when fire hydrants were added. Permanent bathrooms were added as well.


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Cell sites are being built along with other preparationsBuy Photo
Cell sites are being built along with other preparations of the music festival on the Bonnaroo Property in Manchester, Tenn., Wednesday, May 31, 2017. (Photo: Lacy Atkins / The Tennessean)
“I didn’t think I could be as happy as I was when I saw the first fire hydrant,” Cuellar said. “You want to make sexy moves like big stages, but you can’t have fire suppression without water. Without fire suppression you can’t build things. So that ended up being a critical decision by investing in the property I think it shows we’re here for the long term.”

— Bonnaroo organizers have been working to activate the camping areas so that campers have more to do near where they sleep and relax. For instance, camping pod No. 7 contains permanent showers, the Grind coffee shop and the Grove, which is a place to relax and hang out. Approximately 90 percent of all attendees camp at Bonnaroo.

“We’ve been slowly but surely taking pods and turning them into activities areas,” Cuellar said.

— Visiting the farm three weeks before the festival, it’s striking how open the layout of the property is. Cuellar said that’s strategic. Organizers are considering bringing more concerts and other events to the farm, and keeping an open layout with few permanent buildings allows for flexibility.

Stephen LaBelle paints the walls in preparation ofBuy Photo
Stephen LaBelle paints the walls in preparation of next weeks music on the Bonnaroo Property in Manchester, Tenn., Wednesday, May 31, 2017. (Photo: Lacy Atkins / The Tennessean)
— One of the beauties of Great Stage Park is it is an open palette,” Cuellar said. “We have our way of wanting do things. But that’s not the way a mud run, or a tractor pull or a country music festival might want to do things.

“One of the beautiful things about Great Stage Park is it’s a clean canvas. If you dream it, we can do it. And that’s one of our hesitations about adding infrastructure, is not wanting to pigeon-hole ourselves.

— In 2017, the festival will allow fans to go "cashless," meaning fans can link their credit cards to their wristbands and pay for merchandise, food and beer.

"People will still have the option to pay with credit cards or cash, but this is a very positive move for us," Cuellar said.

— The Bonnaroo property is home to the largest mounted patrol outside of Canada during the festival, Cuellar said.

Tennessean


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