The 29th annual Barbecue Festival is almost upon us, which means, if the recent wonderful weather holds out, that we'll probably have another awesome turnout Saturday.
Former Dispatch publisher Joe Sink — a founder of the Festival and so perhaps not coincidentally its official crowd counter for newspaper publication — has given us his eyeball estimate of 200,000 attendees for the past two consecutive years.
That number seems a little incredible, but as Joe often tells doubters, "Go ahead and prove that it's wrong."
That's not an easy thing to do. The Festival is a free event, after all. There are no gates, so there are multiple access routes to the Festival's nine blocks of Main Street in Uptown Lexington. Nobody wears GPS badges or bar codes to be counted.
A few years ago, one doubter on The Dispatch forum wrote that the Festival probably drew no more than 75,000 people, a count that seems way too small to me.
Curiously enough, the official Barbecue Festival brochure said last year's crowd was estimated at 160,000. The difference between Joe Sink and the brochure represents the entire population of Goldsboro. But that's neither here nor there. Besides, Goldsboro is eastern barbecue anyway.
I do think the actual number of last year's crowd and the potential for this year is somewhere between 160,000 and 200,000 people.
So instead of suggesting that Joe Sink is laughably wrong (which many people wish they could do and sometimes attempt to try at their own risk), I'm here to show you why I think he's close to correct. At least he's in the ballpark.
Soooo, the other night, my wife, Kim, and I stepped off one block of Main Street, from First Avenue to Second Avenue. It took 110 paces, times my stride of 2.5 feet. That comes out to a block that's 275 feet long. (That will be my average for all nine blocks, which includes the Square, which is not really a block, but it is the confluence of North and South Main Streets and contains a huge crowd most of the day. Also, not all blocks are of uniform length. We stepped off the block between Second Avenue and Third Avenue, and it was 170 paces long, or 330 feet. So the difference between 275 feet and 330 feet will serve as my margin of error).
Then we stepped off the curb, over the parking lane and to the white dashes on Main Street, up to but not including the lane where the vendor tents are set up. That was seven paces from curb to tent row, or about 17 feet.
With those dimensions, I figure reasonably you can have 275 people in each of seven rows abreast in one walking lane of one block. That comes out to 1,925 people. But then you have to multiply that by two, since festival goers fill the walking lanes on both sides of the vendor tents. That's an average of 3,850 folks per block— and I'm not including the sidewalks or the side streets. I think we can comfortably round that off to 4,000 people per block for convenience sake.
I think that's a logical estimate that each block can hold. Whether it is the physical limit is debatable. I guess you can argue each block could hold up to 5,000 people at once. Maybe more. There are times during the Festival day when people are packed into each block like pork shoulders in a smokehouse.
Anyway, multiply 4,000 people by the nine Festival blocks and you get 36,000 people at the Festival at any given moment.
But the Festival crowd is fluid. It's not a static stadium crowd that barely changes. People are coming and going — mostly coming, I suspect — for 9.5 hours, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Since the 36,000 number represents only a snapshot in time and not an accumulation of Festival goers for the day, how do you turn that number over?
Here's where things admittedly get a little arbitrary and open for argument, but I don't think my reasoning escapes common sense. I figure there are probably five palpable fluctuations in the crowd during the course of the day — one at 8:30 a.m. when the Festival begins and the crowd is already forming, another at 10 a.m. when most people arrive, another at noon for lunch, another at 2 p.m. for the Guitar Pull and another at 4 p.m. for last-minute shopping.
I consider these fluctuations to be like blips on the screen of a radar sweep. The scope never changes, but the blips come and go. So what I call my "turnover" rate over the course of the day is similar to five radar sweeps, (times 36,000) giving us 180,000 people. Now we're close. If I can justify a rate of 5.5 sweeps, then the crowd count reaches 198,000.
Maybe the 5.5 rate comes in if we throw in the longer blocks, the side streets and the large crowd that gathers in the parking lot for the stage at Sam's Car Wash.
Flawed assumptions? Maybe. But then, maybe not. This is not a scientific study and the numbers certainly feel right.
We tried another tack at the Black Chicken Coffee the other day.
One of my friends suggested we take the 36,000 and split it three ways (another arbitrary but reasonable assumption): a third of that crowd stays all day (because they travel great distances and won't leave early), and so the number will stay at 12,000 people; another third stays half the day, maybe from 10 to 4 and thus you take that 12,000 and multiply by two shifts to give you 24,000; and the final third stays about two hours (perhaps strolling the nine blocks as a circuit or two before leaving), so multiply 12,000 by four to give you 48,000. Add those sums for a total Festival crowd of 84,000, which seems low to me. Some will say, "Aha! See? There. The true number."
But divide the 12,000, the 24,000 and the 48,000 each by 84,000 to give you multiplying factors for each third of the crowd. The multiplier for the 12,000 figure is .1429; for 24,000 is .2857; and for 48,000 is .5714. Then work backwards. Multiply the 200,000 estimate by those factors and you get 28,580 all day people; 57,140 half-day people; and 114,280 for two-hour people.
Again, this sounds reasonable to me. If the official crowd estimate is 160,000, then you get 22,864 for all day folks; 45,712 for half-day people, and 91,424 for two-hour people.
What I am not factoring in is the 30 percent chance of rain in the forecast. All bets are off then.
But beyond that, maybe Joe Sink is correct after all. "If you really want to know what the crowd total is," Joe told me, "just look for it in The Dispatch."