By JORDAN COHEN
NILES — Vendors at the 25th annual Mahoning Valley Rib Burn Off, which ended its run Sunday night, complained about the new location, entrance fees, sporadic rain and the economy in general, but the director of special events pronounced himself “ecstatic” over the turnout, the show and the entertainment.
“I think the economy may have actually helped us,” said Tom Sharp of the Cafaro Co., owner of the Eastwood Mall complex. “I think that rather than drive hundreds of miles and pay higher gas prices, people decided to stay close to home and eat or attend one of the shows.”
Sharp did not have attendance figures immediately available but said turnout was “right on schedule” and in line with last year’s attendance of approximately 12,000. Sharp said the highest attendance for the burn-off came in 2003 when the headline attraction, the Charlie Daniels Band, helped draw 20,000.
However, several of the vendors did not share Sharp’s enthusiasm.
“I think it’s the worst it’s ever been in terms of sales,” said Ron Conaway of Magnolia, Texas, operator of Texas Pit Barbeque, last year’s rib burn-off champion. “This has always been one of my better shows but not this time.”
Conaway and several other vendors complained about the show’s new location — the parking lot by Eastwood Field behind Eastwood Mall. In previous years, the burn-off has been in front of the mall along Route 422.
“A lot of people didn’t even know we were back here, and I’d rather have it out front,” said Andy Reigard of Austintown, operator of Armadillo’s, another regular burn-off participant. “I also didn’t see much in the way of advertising, and we could have used more of that.”
Part of that problem may be because of a late change of promoters. The previous promoter had decided not to continue his association, and the replacement, West Coast Productions, had to put the burn-off together in 90 days, according to its representative, Ken Hewitt.
“I still think it’s a nice show, but the GM Lordstown situation has hurt us a bit,” Hewitt said, referring to the temporarily closed plant’s impact on the local economy.
Several of the vendors noted that customers were buying less than usual, and they attributed it to the $7 entrance fee charged after 4 p.m.
“That was a big factor for us, and it’s probably why people weren’t buying like they used to,” said Justin Riegle of Deerfield, operator of Mojo’s Rib Shack. “I don’t think we’ll be back next year.”
Armadillo’s Reigard also agreed that the admission fee along with the economy and the rain hurt his bottom line, but he hopes to return in 2010 “if they promote it more.”
Sharp, Cafaro’s director of events, responded that the burn-off “can’t make money at the gate unless people are eating or buying.” He called the four-day festival a success despite vendor criticism.
“We’re not crammed in like we used to be when we were out front [of the mall],” Sharp said. “I’m really happy about how this has gone.”
Attendance, sparse because of rain Sunday afternoon, appeared to increase later in the day. Country singer John Michael Montgomery was expected to draw a large crowd Sunday night.