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Country Fest stage set at Turtle River

The Port-A-Johns stand in neat ranks, tents dot the hillsides, camping supplies cover the convenience store tables -- it's time for Country Fest Minnesota.

"Lots of activity," said Justin Chrz. "VIP is almost filled up. Weather's cooperating. Artists are all happy."

Chrz is co-owner with his father, Frank Chrz, of Turtle River Golf and Entertainment Center, the site of the Thursday-Saturday Country Fest Minnesota.

Today the 40-by-60-foot main stage and 20-by-28-foot secondary stages will move onto the driving range and at noon on Thursday the music will roll. National acts will be Lee Ann Womack and Phil Vassar starting at 7 p.m. Thursday; Jo Dee Messina, Hot Apple Pie and Little Big Town starting at 5 p.m. Friday; and Trace Adkins and Craig Morgan starting at 7 p.m. Saturday. Regional bands starting at noon each day will be Fire Line, Whiskey Johnson, Tami Lee, Colt 45, Trashville, Telluride and Roosters.

Chrz explained that the greens would be fenced off to prevent damage to the golf course. The VIP ticket holders will be seated up front and the general admission attendees will spread out around the stages.

Roger Davis, who is managing food for the artists and VIPs with Laurie Hamilton, said they are contracted to serve 200. "Their main items are pork roast on Thursday night, prime rib we carve in front of them on Friday and turkey on Saturday," he said.

He said they are also contracted to have food ready for the entertainers and for them to take away when they leave. "We're cooking for their whims any time of day," he said of the approximately 120 entertainers and their support crews.

Davis said the preliminary preparations were in order.

"I'm going out to play golf," he said on Tuesday afternoon. "That's how relaxed we are. Everything is coming together."

Greg Earl, manager of Turtle River Golf, formerly Castle Highlands, said they have been planning the Country Fest since last fall. Justin and Frank Chrz brought the proposal to the Beltrami County Board in January. They then went through a series of adjustments to their plans to get approval. Concerns about traffic safety, numbers of attendees, the Turtle River environment and health care held up approval until last month.

Earl said Turtle River Golf owns 160 acres, providing plenty of room for camping. About 500 campers have registered so far, not a large crowd, but normal for the first year of a festival, he said.

Vendors' booths will ring the entertainment area. Security and law enforcement will occupy the second floor of the clubhouse, a convenience store will be in the front downstairs and the infirmary will be set up in the first floor at the back.

Safety considerations include parking on rented land across the road from the golf course, lighted and patrolled by security. There will also be State Patrol on U.S. Highway 71, Earl said. Crossing guards will keep pedestrians safe as they walk from the parking lot to the entertainment area. Turtle River will be fenced off and a chicken wire fence across the stream will prevent any garbage from floating downstream.

"If the weather holds like it's supposed to, I expect 10,000 on Saturday," Earl said.

He said tickets, either daily admission or three-day passes are still available.

Earl said Bemidji businesses have helped make the preparations for Country Fest successful.

"Everybody's been really supportive getting this off the ground," he said. "It takes the whole community."

Earl said the second Country Fest will be the same weekend in June 2007, and planning is already under way.