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To busk or not? Waynesville ponders street performer ordinance

Street musicians are becoming a common sight in downtown Waynesville, despite a town policy that bans sidewalk performers from playing for tips.


It’s OK to play for fun, but it’s not OK to casually leave your instrument case propped open as a landing place for wayward dollar bills and itinerant coins from a passersby.

Still, the town of Waynesville’s policy hasn’t stopped Bill Turner, a 92-year-old saxophonist, from staking out a section of the sidewalk along Main Street to play for money.

“You would be surprised how many people drop money in the bucket,” he said, adding that he has collected $150 after two hours of playing before.

Technically, a street performer who puts out a bucket, hat, basket, bowl, dish, vase — anything at all that could be construed as a receptacle for tips — is labeled a panhandler. And the town bans panhandling.

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Turner claims the panhandling ordinance shouldn’t apply to street musicians like himself, however.

“The laws that they put there are to keep people off the street who are undesirable,” said Turner, a lifelong professional musician who splits his time between Florida and Waynesville. “It’s not fair.” Turner points to his impressive resume as a musician, which crossed paths with the likes of Dean Martin, Jackie Gleason and Count Basie.

Street musicians playing for tips do have one avenue: they apply to the town for a permit

Turner has appealed to the town to reverse its prohibitive policy on playing for tips  — known colloquially as busking. Turner said he’s in dire need of money after recently being declared legally blind, rendering him unable to work as a piano tuner or drive to paying gigs.

Turner, it turns out, wasn’t the only one playing to Waynesville leaders’ sympathies lately.

Town Manger Marcy Onieal said three other individuals have made appointments with her to talk specifically about busking downtown. She told each of them they are free to play but cannot legally collect tips or cause a ruckus.

“You are welcome to play on the street as long as you are not disturbing the peace, blocking the sidewalk or doing anything obscene,” Onieal said.

The town doesn’t really have an official busking ordinance though — only the loosely applied panhandling one. And while street musicians have the option of going the permit route, it’s unclear whether any have actually done so in recent history and Onieal doesn’t want to be the arbitrator of who can and cannot play.

So Onieal brought the matter to the town aldermen last week to gauge their thoughts. Should the town draft a busking ordinance? If so, what should it include?

“We kind of just wanted your opinion on that,” Onieal said. “I have had a number of people from this community say, ‘We don’t want to be Asheville.’”

Asheville is well known for its buskers who litter city streets, and for the most part, business owners welcome the performers outside their doorsteps for the crowds they attract.

“Street performers are becoming part of a vibrant downtown,” Assistant Town Manager Alison Melnikova said, citing the lively scene on Asheville’s streets.

While Asheville officials are pretty hands-off when it comes to busking rules — anything goes, literally — other towns only allow it certain places, or limit a performer to a couple of hours at a time.

No suggested ordinance was presented to the board last week, but a future ordinance could include restrictions on how many permits the town awards, when someone can play, for how long, where buskers can perform, and how loud the music can be. It could also give first preference to Waynesville or Haywood County residents.

“It is for people who live here to make a couple dollars,” Melnikova said.

According to Onieal, the Downtown Waynesville Association foresaw no problems with allowing buskers but was concerned that performers would interfere with the paid entertainment at downtown street festivals. However, town-issued permits could preclude buskers from setting up shop on festival days, Onieal stated.

The biggest concern for the town board, however, is whether the buskers will bother tourists and hurt business owners.

“The danger is that tourists don’t like it or something like that. That is our collective fear,” said Mayor Gavin Brown.

Alderman and Main Street business owner LeRoy Roberson noted that performers will often park themselves on one of the wooden benches downtown, preventing shoppers from using them.

“I have noticed when they have been playing, they are usually at the benches,” Roberson said. “They have got their stuff laid out and are taking up the whole benches.” 

Occasionally, people will call the town to complain about street performers.

“The police usually ask them to move on if there has been a complaint,” Onieal said.

In the end, town board members said they wanted more time to look into the matter before deciding whether to maintain the status quo or create a specific busking ordinance.

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