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Pilgrimage returns a year older and wiser

Staff, public safety officers say they are more prepared than ever to deal with large crowds

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Pilgrimage 2018 Saturday

Pilgrimage Music Festival fans embraced the rain at MAFIAoZA'S Pizzeria & Neighborhood Pub last year.

With the Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival coming up Sept. 21-22, fans are beginning to buzz. But behind the scenes, city staff, Pilgrimage employees and volunteers have been thinking about this year’s festival ever since the last one ended. 

The Pilgrimage Festival, embarking on its fifth year, is still relatively new, and workers are viewing past events as opportunities to learn from mistakes and make improvements. 

Todd Horton, the director of the Williamson County Emergency Management Agency and former deputy chief and emergency manager with the Franklin Fire Department, was heavily involved in the festival the first four years. He says that some challenges festival workers faced in years past were due to unknowns because, in Franklin, there really hasn’t been another event like Pilgrimage. 

Horton pointed out that while downtown events, such as the Main Street Festival, have a variety of businesses that can provide a large number of people easy access to shelter from extreme heat or during a thunderstorm, The Park at Harlisdale Farm is not equipped to do the same. Also, limited exit points have led to traffic problems when large crowds try to leave the park area all at once. 

“At the Pilgrimage Festival, about the shortest distance you have to walk is one mile, with the exception of The Factory that’s right across the street, obviously, so it’s a little bit (of a) different challenge,” he said.

According to Horton, Pilgrimage workers have learned something new with every year. For example, the first year had a ticket cap of 15,000, but only about 6,000 people came each day. That first year also included a lot of rain, so organizers and staff had to jump that hurdle. On the other hand, the second festival brought heat-related incidents, which provided a different learning experience. 

Last year, however, the rain-or-shine event was pushed to its limits when heavy thunderstorms cut Saturday’s schedule in half and forced Sunday’s events to be cancelled altogether. 

Horton said that while no one wants that to happen again, the situation did reveal communication problems that have since been addressed.

“One of the things that I stress time and time again — we cannot assume that our plan is good just because it looks good,” he said. “A plan is never validated until it’s tested.” 

Immediately after last year’s event, Horton began putting together a 31-page report filled with communication and traffic solutions for the next festival. 

While Horton has moved on to work for the county, Deputy Chief of Operations Glenn Johnson has stepped in on behalf of the fire department, working with Lt. Charlie Richards of the Franklin Police Department to improve upon last year’s plan and organize 68 public safety officers to help work the festival. 

Sharif Zawaideh, the festival’s director, said the transition from Horton to Johnson has been seamless, but they agree that there will always be an element of unpredictability because of the scope of the festival.  

“At the fair, they can put a lot of people in the ag center complex. At a concert, you’re in a complex. At a Titans game, you can go to the concourse and get off the bleachers. That’s a challenge for this event because tents are not considered safe from lightning and storms,” Richards said. “Chief Johnson and I have had a much better plan and much better communication this year than I think anybody’s ever had for this event, and we do have plans in place for cars and people to not interact as far as the routes they exit.” 

Because Franklin Road is the only point of exit from Harlinsdale, the road will be effectively split into two one-way halves, allowing drivers to utilize both lanes on the north end to get to Mack Hatcher and on the south end to move toward downtown. Additionally, they intend to avoid slowdowns by banning pedicabs and placing three officers at Mack Hatcher and Franklin Road to stop traffic the moment a light turns yellow to preventing the intersection from becoming blocked. 

Furthermore, attendees getting to the festival via rideshare must be dropped off and picked up at The Factory, across the street, not at the entrance to the park. Richards said drivers who break this rule will be ticketed because it creates a traffic and safety issue. 

At this year’s festival, message boards near on-site parking and messaging via local radio stations will be used to communicate information to drivers. Additionally, Pilgrimage staff will be able to communicate through the festival app and over the PA system. 

Zawaideh said that while internal communication was fine last year, some of the guests were confused by the decision to evacuate so early. 

“When you’ve got both our dedicated meteorologist and the national weather center telling us we have 100% certainty that the storm is going to pass overhead ... we bought ourselves extra time to get everyone to safety,” he said. “However, in that, because we were evacuating before you were even seeing a bolt of lightning in the sky or even the dark clouds, I think it was confusing for a lot of participants.” 

Johnson said that weather will always pose a challenge, but the team is preparing as much as it can. 

“I’m sure there’s going to be a hitch in the giddy-up somewhere,” he said, “but I think we have a better laid plan, again, this year.”  

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