The second annual multi-day bluegrass festival, which sold out both nights last weekend at Lake Junaluska’s Stuart Auditorium, has had great success. But Balsam Range singer and fiddler Buddy Melton has a larger vision in mind. He came before the TDA board last week to ask for funds to help push the event to the next level.
“The purpose of this grant is to help us meet the goal and vision to grow this festival countywide — to stimulate the economy during a low occupancy time,” Melton said. “We feel like music is a powerful tool, but we need that extra cherry on top to get people to come here and stay here.”
The $35,000 funding request from the TDA’s 3 percent occupancy tax fund would allow the event organizers to secure a nationally recognized headlining musical act for next year’s festival, which in turn should make it easier to secure larger sponsors for the event.
With two successful years under its belt, Melton said the festival has the potential to be a nationally recognized event that could put Haywood County on the map.
“We want artists to want to come here,” he said.
While the festival has been held on a Friday and Saturday at Lake Junaluska, Melton said he’d like to see the festival run from Wednesday to Sunday so musicians and attendees stay in Haywood County for several nights and performances could be spread throughout the county.
In addition to the performances at night, Melton wants to develop the Art of Music Institute to bring highly qualified music instructors to the festival to lead master classes to festival participants. Ideally, those students can incorporate what they learn into the festival.
Melton said now is the time to take the festival to the next level. The event sold 1,400 tickets during its first year and was sold out this year, reaching the 1,800-spectator capacity at Stuart Auditorium Friday and Saturday nights. The first two years exceeded expectations and the festival is in a good position to really make an economic impact on the county in the gap between the leaf looking season and ski season.
“I grew up here and raised my family here and I feel like I want to give back,” Melton said. “The TDA is the most important piece and player right now to make this work. I feel like we have a limited window for the Art of Music Festival to have the quality needed to be a national event to stand on its own.”
While the $35,000 grant is for next year’s festival, the money needs to be spent in this year’s TDA budget to secure headliners and instructors.
“Where’s the money going to come from?” asked TDA Board member Mike Eveland, who also serves as a Maggie Valley alderman.
TDA Executive Director Lynn Collins said the TDA had $25,000 available in the current budget for the grant but would have to pull $10,000 from the fund balance to award $35,000 in the current budget cycle.
Eveland said he had concerns about pulling the money from fund balance and the precedent being set by awarding such a large grant for the festival.
“It’s $35,000 this year but how much will it be next year and the year after? We won’t have that much money every year to give without taking from fund balance,” Eveland said.
Melton said he considers this year’s request as seed money instead of an ongoing sponsorship. Ideally, the ramp up in entertainment, instructional classes and marketing will help land large sponsorships to help fund the festival’s expansion in the coming years. The goal is to also keep ticket prices steady for a few years to give people a great deal and encourage them to spend money elsewhere in the county.
“It can become one of these events like the Savannah Music Festival — it started the same way and now takes over Savannah for a month during a time nothing else is going on,” Melton said. “The TDA has a responsibility to stimulate the economy and that’s our goal.”
County Commissioner Michael Sorrells, who also serves on the TDA board, said he was in favor of helping to facilitate the growth of the festival.
“Not too long ago we had a situation where we were talking about establishing a program like this and it didn’t really go anywhere. Now we have local people very willing to do something. I’ve been following this thing and I see what it could potentially be,” he said.
Eveland said he supported the festival idea, but still had concerns about the funding requests in the future.
“We’d be naive to hand over $35,000 and think they’ll need less money next year to make it bigger and better,” he said.
TDA Board member and Lake Junaluska representative Ken Howle said Balsam Range and the event organizers are aware the TDA’s goal is to help build up events but not sustain them in the future.
“We’re sending a clear message right now that we want to build events but not keep them going,” he said.
Melton said the impact from the festival is already being realized with every room at Lake Junaluska, Cataloochee Ranch and other motels in Maggie Valley already booked solid for the second annual event.
“We could keep doing what we’re doing and not grow it and we’d be fine, but for the sake of the county I think we can do more,” he said. “If I didn’t see the growth and economic impact I wanted to see, the last thing I’d want to do is take taxpayer money when it’s not doing anything for the taxpayers. But we’re taking money to put right back into the local economy.”
The TDA board approved the $35,000 funding request with Eveland being the only opposition.