Pork in the Park: the other side

If you hadn’t noticed, I’m taking a couple days off from politics here. Part of this is the simple fact I’m up at the GOP Spring Convention and the computer will stay home. I had issues the last time I took my laptop away so better to be safe than sorry – I will have my camera and notebook, so don’t assume I won’t be busy.

Yesterday I moderated a comment on my Pork in the Park coverage from last weekend, which started a brief exchange. It wasn’t the glowing commentary I usually hear about the event, but I’m sad to say the guy had a point. I happened to find an extended version of the comments on a foodie blog this gentleman, Ralph Rossi, runs.

His contention was that the festival is beginning to become a victim of its own success because the food vendors are so spread out. Some in the food court placed in its traditional location did relatively well, while the others relegated to the stone parking lot struggled to make their rent. Now I can understand where it would be a problem to have rib vendors stacked up on top of each other considering the traffic they can create with the popularity of their items, but I hate to hear anyone having a bad experience at such an event. Even if there’s rain in the forecast, no one should feel the need to cut their losses and leave the day before the scheduled end.

According to the official Pork in the Park website, this year there were over 35 food vendors with just about half featuring barbecue or pit beef. Add to that space for other non-food vendors, the competitors, the stage and picnic area, and the other features and it’s enough to almost make you wonder if they’re ready to outgrow WinterPlace Park.

On a personal level, when I first heard of Pork in the Park I compared it to an event I was more familiar with in my hometown. Originally held along the riverfront in downtown Toledo, the Northwest Ohio Rib-Off was an event more geared for retail sale than competition – over 20 vendors would be serving and it was a challenge to try them all during the three-day event. So only having a handful of rib sellers threw me for a loop the first time I came to Pork in the Park in 2005.

Now I’m not sure what prompted the Toledo event to relocate to suburban Maumee, but it’s now held at the county fairgrounds and that location has advantages: the former ballpark for the Toledo Mud Hens is still there, providing a grandstand for concerts and events – Ted Nugent was the featured performer there last year. There’s also plenty of parking, an adequate amount of open space, and the location is suited for traffic to come and go since it was once a baseball stadium.

Returning to our festival, it looks like Pork in the Park has moved up in stature to have nearly 20 rib sellers (plus a whole lot of other food offerings) so perhaps it’s time to upgrade the facilities as well. Unfortunately the county doesn’t have a space available to it such as Toledo does, but there are some possibilities which intrigue me.

One possibility would be to do a short-term lease (for a week or so) of the vacant parcels of land adjacent to Perdue Stadium. Obviously there’s plenty of parking there if the Shorebirds are away, not to mention the grandstand for entertainment, and if the Shorebirds happen to be home there’s always the possibility to reverse the idea the county has had the last couple years of using the Perdue Stadium parking lot for a shuttle stop for Pork in the Park by using WinterPlace Park as parking. They would also need to close the portion of the northbound U.S. 13 off-ramp which leads to Hobbs Road, but that would be a manageable closing for a weekend.

Another thought would be to use a combination of county-owned facilities which are adjacent to each other: the Civic Center, the parking lot across Glen Avenue, and Wicomico County Stadium. Since we already close Glen Avenue for certain Civic Center events the traffic interruption wouldn’t be unusual. Additional space could come from the land formerly occupied by the demolished Salisbury Mall. The beer garden would have to be across the road from the Civic Center but aside from that there’s the advantage of having indoor facilities in case of rain.

If they’re not planning on moving – and obviously there’s the familiarity of the locale since all nine Pork in the Park renditions have been held at WinterPlace – I think they need to devote more thought to perhaps using the side of the facility where the Equestrian Center sits for the competition side and opening up the side of the park where competitors are now placed to become a long, linear food court.

Whatever the best solution is, the time to think about it is now. With the 10th anniversary coming up next year, the crowds may be bigger than ever. I don’t like people to leave our little corner of the world unhappy (well, unless they are playing the Shorebirds) and reading Ralph Rossi’s complaints made me feel like perhaps changes are necessary to assure the event continues to prosper and help our area tourism economy.