For the next three days, the sleepy little hamlet of Limestone, Maine, will once again be
transformed almost instantaneously into the most populated city in the state.
And the residents and business owners, like it or not, have Phish to thank for it.
The second annual concert held here by the Vermont-based band on an abandoned Air
Force base is expected to bring 60,000 people from 50 states into the city's borders for
three days of music and celebration.
Last year's two-day concert by Phish, dubbed the "Great Went," also brought
about 60,000 Phishheads to this usually quiet city, boosting the population from about
2,000 to more than that of Portland, Maine. The sudden influx also pumped an estimated
$25 million into the state's economy, making business owners among the happier hosts
"We're doing a lot of veggie plates for the kids," said Sally Sullivan, whose kitchen at
Kelley's Restaurant would, on most other weekends, be filled with the smells of meatloaf
and gravy, rather than soy burgers. "A lot of them are vegetarians, so we went with what
they like, based on last year."
On Thursday afternoon (Aug. 13), Sullivan was prepping two crews to work around the
clock, if necessary, to handle the additional traffic of hungry travelers. As one of scores of
local business owners gearing up for Lemonwheel, a concert event held Friday (Aug.
14), Saturday and Sunday by the improvisation-heavy band Phish at the
decommissioned Loring Air Force base, Sullivan seemed almost as excited as the fans.
This year, concert-goers paid $75 to park, pitch a tent and kick back with three sets of
Phish tunes on both Saturday and Sunday.
The concert not only brings money to a town hit hard by the Air Force's exit, a devalued
dollar in nearby Canada and recent agricultural downturns -- it also provides jobs for 800
people, many of whom come from the nearby community, and who seem to enjoy the
event as much as Phish fans do. In addition, it provides a weekend of jamming and
surprise performances for Phishheads coming in from all over the country to see their favorite band.
Many of the tie-dye-clad masses started pouring into Maine's borders for the annual
concert Wednesday night. Meanwhile, local police are preparing for an onslaught of tens
of thousands of visitors, and merchants and other suppliers are amassing goods to last
through the invasion.
To prepare for the event, Sullivan is stocking her kitchen shelves with the meatless
burgers -- and she couldn't be happier. "We're not going to be able to think," she said,
looking forward to the weekend ahead. "It's just going to be unreal. I hope we don't have
to lock the doors this year."
The enthusiasm of business owners such as Sullivan is indicative of the buzz wafting
throughout Aroostook County in preparation for Lemonwheel. Many locals have already
planted signs reading some variation of "Welcome Phish Phans" on their lawn.
That's because last year's event was universally hailed as a success by area business
owners, authorities and residents. Afterward, many said they were thankful not only for
the financial boost the concert brought, but for the respectfulness of the legions of Phish
fans who made Limestone the largest city in Maine for three days.
If the number of fans expected this year again is staggering, consider these additional
figures offered by Great Northeast Productions, which is promoting Lemonwheel: There
will be 600 portable toilets on-site; two miles of telephone cable; and seven
tractor-trailers full of stage equipment. In addition to myriad food and merchandise
vendors, Loring will also house an FCC-licensed radio station and an official U.S. post
Speaking just before he left for Lemonwheel on Thursday afternoon, Phish manager
John Paluska said bandmembers -- Page McConnell (keyboards), Trey Anastasio
(guitar), Jon Fishman (drums) and Mike Gordon (bass) -- had just arrived at Loring and
were likely touring the grounds.
"The first thing they do is take it all in, cruise around and gawk at all the cool art
installations that have been created there over the past three weeks," he said.
While he declined to offer details, Paluska said the band was planning several "dramatic
events" similar in intensity to the band- and fan-created artwork that was set ablaze
during last year's closing set.
In anticipation of Lemonwheel, the ranks of the tiny Limestone police force have swelled
from one chief, three full-time officers and 11 reserves to a full 30-member team,
according to a representative for police chief Ronnie Sprague. Those staffers will also
be augmented by members of the local sheriff's department and state troopers.
After last year's concert, Paluska praised the work of local authorities and said the event
had experienced only "a minimum" of problems related to fan unruliness. At 1996's
massive inaugural concert, the Clifford Ball (which was held in upstate New York), one
Phish fan died after being struck by a car.
Police dispatcher Preston Dumond said he's not expecting many difficulties at
Lemonwheel. "There'll be no more problems than last year," he said.
Contributing to the smooth state of concert affairs is that the enormous summer
gatherings are revered as special events by Phish fans. "The band is doing something
every year that really gives back to the fans," said 26-year-old Taka Andrews of San
Andrews -- who's been a fan for 10 years and who is attending the massive gig for the
first time -- is flying to Boston on Friday afternoon, then caravaning with friends 400 miles
to Lemonwheel. "It's the end of their summer tour and they pull out all the stops, without a
doubt," he said.
Although locals are excited by Loring's new role as the mecca of Phishdom, local
development official Brian Hamel said the community never anticipated the new
"Our redevelopment plan did not include the base becoming an entertainment venue -- it
happened when the band and its promoters found us on the Internet," said Hamel,
president and CEO of the Loring Development Authority. "But we're perfectly willing to
utilize it for this type of venue, as long as it's the type of event the community supports."
Toni Doucette is among those who can't wait for the weekend.
"Last year [Phish fans] were really tired, but they'd come back at the end of each day
excited to talk about what happened at the show and what was going on with all the
fans," said Doucette, manager of the Haven Inn and Malabeam campgrounds, where
many concert staffers stay.