Jamboree In The Hills on hiatus

People gather on the hillside at the Jamboree In The Hills site near Morristown as they await the start of the Saturday show in 2016. Live Nation, which owns and operates the site, announced Wednesday that Jamboree is on “hiatus” for 2019.

MORRISTOWN — A local summer tradition four decades in the making is canceled for 2019, and at least one Belmont County official believes a dispute between festival management and country music fans over the handling of alcoholic beverages on site may be to blame.

Live Nation, the company that has organized Jamboree In The Hills since 2006, announced Wednesday that the event will not be held this coming July.

“Jamboree in the Hills will be on hiatus for 2019 while we consider options regarding the future of the Belmont County, OH festival site,” the event promotion and venue operating company announced on the JITH website. “We will provide an update when more details are available. We are grateful for the community support since the festival’s inception.”

Efforts to contact the company and its local representatives for additional comment were unsuccessful.

Local government leaders, however, did say they were disappointed at the news and concerned for the future of the four-day country music festival.

“Today’s announcement is a very disappointing one,” Belmont County Board of Commissioners President J.P. Dutton said via email. “Belmont County has been proud to be the home of Jamboree In The Hills for over 40 years. While this business decision is unfortunate, Belmont County will continue through its role as a local government to work with Live Nation toward the future of this great event.”

Commissioner Mark Thomas, whose term in office ends this year, agreed but speculated that alcoholic beverages lie at the rot of the problem.

“We have met numerous times with Live Nation regarding Jamboree In The Hills’ future. We appreciate their willingness to sit down with us to talk about the challenges a festival, of that nature, has in today’s different corporate concert world,” Thomas wrote in an email. “It is important to note that the Jamboree site is atypical to its regular facilities, the closest one being Key Bank Pavilion at Star Lake (Pennsylvania). Because the Belmont County site permits fans to bring in their own alcohol, Live Nation does not make a lot of money on concessions, something that is vital to all of their more permanent venues.

“With that said, we will continue to speak to Live Nation, as we can, to determine if there are any creative ways to keep the festival viable and profitable. Live Nation has made a business decision and we respect that of them. We simply hope there is a way(to) tweak the event to insure it remains in Belmont County for many years to come.”

Thomas added that the event has been a staple of the region for decades.

“It has been a very popular event by virtue of its previous successes and its 41-year legacy. Unfortunately, the concert experience has evolved over the years and Live Nation has tried to maintain a balance between those changes and keeping it ‘the same’ all these years.

“From a lodging and sales tax standpoint, it will be a tough hit for Belmont County,” Thomas continued. “Those two to three weeks in mid-July bring in nice taxes for the county. Beyond that, it brings people here where we can showcase all the other good sites and attractions.”

Commissioner Josh Meyer echoed the comments of his fellow board members.

“It’s a tough situation for them. I know it’ll be a big loss for this area to not have the Jamboree here, but we’re continue to move forward and hopefully they can get things worked out,” Meyer said. “It’s disappointing from that point of view, and also for the people who go every year. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of disappointment in that regard.”

He added that while the commissioners have had good relations with Live Nation, there was little the board could do to make the area more amenable to the event.

“That’s purely a business decision on their part. It’s out of our hands,” Meyer said. “For so many years it’s been a given thing. It’s just part of the area. Many people have their vacations built around Jamboree now.”

Barb Ballint, executive director of the Belmont County Tourism Council, said the cancellation is a huge loss for her agency and the area.

“As far as events, that’s (Belmont County’s) No.1 tourist attraction. It’s given us a hard hit, that’s for sure,” she said. “Every July we see a raise in our lodging tax receipts because of the visitors that are coming in to attend Jamboree In The Hills. If we could compare July of 2019 to July of 2018 I could guarantee we’re going to see a decline next year, not only in the lodging tax receipts, it’s going to have a huge effect on the local economy for July. Our grocery stores, our retailers, everyone’s going to be affected by not having that event take place next year, the third weekend of July.”

Ballint declined to speculate at this point what impact the change might have on the tourism council’s annual tradition of giving donations to local museums and festivals.

“This is all fresh news to us,” she said, adding that the concert has put Belmont County on the map for many. “When you have people coming from Canada, New York, Kentucky, all over the country, they know they’re coming to Belmont County. … It’s going to be sorely missed this year.”

Like the commissioners, though, she acknowledged that Live Nation made a business decision.

“Right now, I don’t think there’s anything we can do. I think Live Nation made that decision based on their sales and attendance in the last couple years. It’s wasn’t a secret that … attendance (in July 2018) was drastically down. Is it a surprise they’re not going to be hosting the event? Absolutely. Is it a surprise there had to be some type of change? Not a surprise.”

Jamboree In The Hills began on July 16, 1977, at Brush Run Park, located just west of St. Clairsville. Country music artists such as Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and Merle Haggard were some of the first performers to take the stage. The festival relocated to its current site along U.S. 40 near Morristown in 1989. In recent years, acts such as Glen Dale native Brad Paisley, Jason Aldean, Trace Adkins, Neal McCoy, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan have entertained the crowds, which have been said to number more than 100,000.

But fans do not just attend to only see the latest superstars hit the stage. They also come back year after year to meet up with old friends. There are traditions within the festival such as the Redneck Run, in which attendees compete for the best viewing spots in the outdoor venue.

In December 2016, Live Nation announced on its website that it was changing the name of the event to Jambo Country, eliminating the Sunday portion of the festival and banning attendees from bringing in their own alcohol or coolers, which would force them to buy their beverages inside the venue. The planned changes by Live Nation were met with immediate backlash from the public, with many fans threatening to boycott the 2017 festival. Then-Belmont County commissioner Matt Coffland attended a meeting wearing a cowboy hat and toting his cooler to protest. Coffland said the changes would have negatively impacted the region’s economy, noting that drinking was simply part of the event tradition and the off-site sale of alcohol was a help to the local economy.

The public outcry led to Live Nation reversing its decision a few days later.

In 2016, Jamboree In The Hills General Manager Kelly Tucker-Jones said the plan to ban coolers and carry-in alcohol at the venue was a matter of safety. She also said the demand for a final Sunday slate of acts was just not there anymore. Live Nation also introduced new elements to the festival, including luxury camping packages, campsites with electric hook-ups, private restrooms and access to an exclusive bar area.

Staff Writers Miranda Sebroski and Robert DeFrank contributed to this report.