More than two dozen popular festivals in Haywood County are at risk of losing funding from the county’s tourism agency, hampering the ability of organizers to advertise and promote their events.
Grant funding for festivals, typically ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 a year, would be cut off after four years under new guidelines being considered by the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. The money would instead be funneled to new, up-and-coming festivals and initiatives.
“We felt like there were enough new events coming in that needed help getting started,” said Marion Hamel, a member of the tourism authority board.
Long-running festivals that have come to rely on the funding year after year are monopolizing tourism dollars at the expense of start-up events desperate for seed money to get off the ground, Hamel said.
But if the money dries up to promote signature festivals — perennial favorites like Folkmoot USA, the Church Street Arts and Crafts Festival and the Apple Festival — they may no longer attract the giant crowds of the past, organizers say.
Meanwhile, the new festivals may be a flop and fail to pick up the slack.
“People come up with an idea for a new event every day, but it doesn’t mean they can make it happen,” said Buffy Phillips with the Downtown Waynesville Association. “Is it going to a be a quality event that is going to put heads in beds?”
CeCe Hipps, director of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce, said the chances are “slim” of an individual pulling off a large-scale festival successfully without the backing of an established organization.
“You have to know what you are doing and have the infrastructure to do it,” Hipps said.
But if new events never get a chance, how do you know which ones hold great promise, Hamel said.
“You can’t say, ‘Gee, that won’t do anything for us,’” Hamel said.
Continually funding the same events year after year isn’t growing the county’s tourism base, according to Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood tourism authority.
“If we don’t have new events then we are not bringing new people in necessarily,” Collins said.
She pointed to the plethora of festivals held the second and third weekends of October as a prime example — and the empty squares on the calendar come the fourth weekend.
“How helpful would it be to extend the season by having something going on that last weekend?” Collins said. “If we can provide seed money to make that happen, then it is a win-win for everybody.”
Collins hopes organizations such as the Haywood Chamber and Downtown Waynesville Association respond by coming up with new festivals.
But organizers say that’s the last thing they’ll do — losing funding for their signature events won’t inspire them to take on the risk of new ventures during uncertain economic times.
“We are maxed out with events as it is now,” said Hipps. “Taking money away from us for one event is not going to be any incentive for us to go out and create another event. It is just not going to happen.”
“We have a reputation of doing very successful, very well done, very organized events,” Phillips said of the Downtown Waynesville Association. “There is not enough staff time to create new events to apply for the funding.”
The strategy to fund new festivals could end up being a wash for tourism if existing festivals fold because of lack of financial support, said Tim Barth, the town manager of Maggie Valley.
“What if it jeopardizes existing events? If existing events go away because it doesn’t get funded, it is harder to start a new event than to keep an existing event,” Barth said.
Maggie Valley knows all too well what can happen when even the most esteemed of events fails to get the attention it needs. The Maggie Valley Moonlight Race, which historically attracted over 1,000 runners, was canceled in its 29th year after dwindling numbers made it financially unfeasible. TDA funding actually helped revive it last year.
While festival organizers are looking out for their own events, however, the tourism authority must weigh what’s best for overall tourism.
“They have to look at ways of trying to spread the tax dollars around to do the most good,” said Tom Knapko, owner of Creekwood Cabins in Maggie Valley. “If you have a successful event, you should be able to do it on your own.”
Knapko said he doesn’t have a problem with a four-year cap on funding.
“If you are going to have a successful event, you are going to have to get your act together,” Knapko said.
Staging a festival is costly, however, and even the most popular events struggle to cover those costs. Canton’s Labor Day Festival is the county’s longest running event — clocking in at 101 years and counting. But it is hardly self-supporting.
The town ponies up $20,000 each year — for bands and musicians, porta-potties, stages, tents, clean-up crews and law enforcement.
“It is absolutely a dead loss,” said Al Matthews, Canton’s town manager.
The Labor Day Festival has gotten an average of $4,000 a year in TDA funding recently, and that’s allowed the town to bill the event to a regional rather than local audience. Without the funding, “We would be hampered in some of our advertising,” Matthews said.
Likewise, Phillips said she would have to scale back advertising for the Church Street Arts and Crafts festival, a stalwart event of the Downtown Waynesville Association that draws thousands of people every year. It relies on advertising money from the TDA to rake in those crowds, Phillips said.
“I get results,” Phillips said. “Where other communities’ festivals are dying, it isn’t the case in Waynesville because we have money to promote it.”
Phillips said she would no longer be able to advertise the Church Street festival in national publications and would instead have to focus on the immediate region.
Folkmoot USA, the international dance festival headquartered in Haywood County, would be in the same predicament.
“We would not advertise as much outside the region if we didn’t get that funding. It is more expensive to put an ad in something like ‘Southern Living,’” said Karen Babcock, the executive director of Folkmoot. We would fall back on local publications to target “the people who are already your fans and customer base.”
The Lake Logan Triathlon, a weekend of competitive outdoor adventure races held every August, is also at risk of losing its funding, which has come in at $3,000 the past four years.
The event attracted 700 racers last year, plus their families and friends who come for the weekend. The race organizer, Greg Duff of Glory Hound Events, estimates it has a $200,000 economic impact.
“I think those are the things that should be evaluated when determining whether it has a return on the investment, and for the Lake Logan Triathlon, the answer is definitely ‘yes,’” Duff said.
However, name recognition of established events should counter the need for as much advertising, according to Marion Hamel, a member of the Haywood tourism authority.
“We really felt as though those events that have been going on a long time, people are aware of them and they probably don’t need as much advertising,” Hamel said. “We really feel like the events that have done well and do put heads in beds have had the opportunity to build up more sponsorships to help with funding of advertising.”
Making the cut
Several festivals managed to win a spot in the funding line-up for the first time this year: Art After Dark gallery stroll in downtown Waynesville, the Smoky Mountain Folk Festival, a Fourth of July festival in Maggie Valley, three different car and truck shows in Maggie, Lake Junaluska’s Easter Celebration and the Haywood County Fair.
While only two of these are actually “new” events, they are all new to the funding pool this year, showing it is possible to make room for at least some new events without completely cutting out the old ones.
But many other events applying for the first time weren’t so lucky, including craft shows in Maggie Valley, events at the historic Shelton House Museum and a bluegrass concert at Francis Farm Mill.
“There just wasn’t enough money to go around,” Collins said. “Perhaps this would allow them to fund some of those things there isn’t enough funding for.”
Meanwhile, events hitting their four-year cap include the Church Street festival, Friday Night street dances in downtown Waynesville, The Whole Bloomin’ Thing spring festival and the International Festival Day held during Folkmoot in late July.
Also at risk is funding for a festival director in Maggie Valley. The festival director is tasked with coordinating and recruiting new events to the town-owned festival grounds. The town pays half the salary and a tourism grant foots the other half.
The salary subsidy would be phased out under the four-year cap, however. Ironically, the festival director’s job is to recruit new festivals to town.
“We wouldn’t have somebody who is actively looking for new events,” Barth said. “I think it would make bringing new events to the area more difficult because we wouldn’t have a point person making that happen.”
The proposal will be discussed and likely voted on at the tourism board meeting at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 30, at the Bethea Welcome Center at Lake Junaluska. Collins said she doesn’t know whether it will pass.
More than half the tourism board members appear to support it already, however. The proposal has been discussed by both the finance and advertising committees and appears to have their approval.
However, none of the key players in the county’s tourism industry seemed to be aware that such a change was in the works. They only learned of the proposed change Monday after fielding calls on the issue from The Smoky Mountain News, which had noticed the issue on the agenda for the upcoming tourism meeting.
The tourism board plans to vote this week, since it’s their last meeting before the application period for next year’s grant funding opens in January.
A primer on the Haywood tourism funding stream
The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority brings in more than $800,000 a year through a 4 percent tax on overnight stays in hotels, motels, cabin rentals and B&Bs.
A quarter of that — about $215,000 this year — is earmarked for special tourism initiatives.
Five areas of the county — namely Waynesville, Maggie Valley, Canton, Lake Junaluska and Clyde — get their own piece of the pie based on how much of the room tax was collected in that area. While the exact amount will obviously fluctuate depending on how tourism shakes out this fiscal year, a rough estimate of what each area gets is:
• Maggie Valley: $121,000
• Waynesville: $69,292
• Canton: $15,500
• Lake Junaluska: $9,282
• Clyde: $648
Each area has its own committee to divvy up its share. The committee sorts through all the applications for funding and decides how much to award for the various festivals and projects.
The tourism authority has final say over the funding, however. In all but a couple of instances, the tourism authority has simply rubber-stamped the committee’s decision. After all, that was the whole point of setting aside a share of tourism tax dollars – for individual communities to spend as they saw fit.
“The TDA tries diligently to abide by that,” said Lynn Collins, director of the Haywood TDA.
The proposal to limit how long a festival is eligible for grant money is nothing new. It has been debated for more than decade. The tourism board has periodically discussed whether long-running events should be weaned from grant money and learn to stand alone.