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Folkmoot to finally get title to old school

fr folkmootAn old elementary school in Waynesville that serves as a giant bunkhouse for troupes of international performers during the signature Folkmoot festival each summer is being relinquished by the Haywood County school system and turned over to Folkmoot for good. 


Owning its own headquarters is seen as a critical turning point for Folkmoot as it tries to both reinvent itself and reclaim its iconic status.

“We would move beyond a once-a-year major event that brings people from across the world to Western North Carolina,” said Rose Johnson, president of the Folkmoot board.

Folkmoot hopes to increase its presence with a lineup of events and activities promoting international cultures throughout the year.

“The festival is Folkmoot’s flagship, as everyone knows,” said Karen Babcock, Folkmoot executive director. “We are now working on a strategic plan to expand Folkmoot programs for the community year-round.”

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But Folkmoot was unable to focus on these more lofty goals when saddled with the year-to-year uncertainty of whether it would have a functional facility to operate out of.

Folkmoot has leased the old Hazelwood school for 10 years, but the building is falling apart and in desperate need of repairs and modernization. Folkmoot officials were hesitant to plow money into fixing up a building they didn’t in fact own, however.

“Without having ownership, donors aren’t going to be willing to give us the kind of capital to put into the building,” Babcock said.

The Haywood County school system has no use for the old school anymore, and so it wasn’t going to spend money making repairs either.

But once the building is formally deeded to Folkmoot, a capital campaign to fix up the building can hopefully make some headway, Babcock said.

To Haywood County leaders, unloading a run-down building that had become a liability — and had no other takers anyway — is a smart move for taxpayers.

“The only practical use of that building is for Folkmoot,” said County Commissioner Mark Swanger.

Indeed, the old school fits the bill perfectly for Folkmoot.

“We have to have a place to feed and house 300 people every summer,” said Dave Stallings, a Folkmoot executive board member.

And there simply aren’t any other facilities in Haywood County large enough to bunk that many people — let alone a facility with a commercial cafeteria and kitchen, showers, laundry, gym and auditorium. 

“We have done research to try to find alternatives, but all the alternatives we looked at were cost-prohibitive,” said Babcock.

“The only realistic option came down to somehow staying in this building,” Stallings added.

But each year that went by, critical repairs were being neglected due to the ownership uncertainty, and the building was falling into more and more disrepair.

A capital campaign to fix the building would be a tough fundraising pitch unless it was in Folkmoot’s name, Stallings said.

“There are bricks and mortar grants if you own the building, but it is hard to get that if you say you want to fix up somebody else’s property,” Stallings said.

Weatherizing the building is one of the top priorities. It has antiquated boilers, leaky single-pane windows and no insulation. The building costs a fortune to heat — even though the thermostat is turned down to 45 degrees and staff works from home most of the winter.

The most pressing issue — one that couldn’t wait another year — is the dire condition of the roof. It is so pocked with chronic leaks that the building would soon begin to see structural damage.

A roofer who patches the roof every summer on a pro bono basis in exchange for free tickets to performances counted 40 leaks last year.

Since the school system got no money from Folkmoot as a tenant, it made no sense for the school system to bear the cost of fixing it, however.

 “There was no reason for them to patch a roof they aren’t going to use,” Stallings admitted.

Likewise, Folkmoot wasn’t going to patch the roof on a building it merely leased. So it kept on leaking.

This was the last year it could be put off, however, and was likely an extra shot of motivation for the school system to finally give up its title to the building.

The old Hazelwood school was vacated in the 1990s. It was too small, antiquated and a maintenance nightmare, so it was replaced with a new, bigger school.

The timing was perfect for Folkmoot. Folkmoot had worn out its welcome at Waynesville Middle School, which had grown weary of hordes of performers being bunked at the school every summer. Babcock said Folkmoot is grateful to the school system for offering the use the old Hazelwood School building for free all these years.

But eventually, the writing was on the wall.

The options for the school system were simple: tear it down, give it away or start doing some maintenance on it to keep it from falling down.

“At minimum for us right now it would be a quarter of a million to put a roof on that building,” said Pat Smathers, attorney for the school board.

And it would cost as much as $500,000 to tear down the old school, according to Smathers. So giving it to Folkmoot was certainly the best option.


Folkmoot’s evolution

County Commissioner Mark Swanger called it a win-win to give the building to Folkmoot.

“Folkmoot is a very important part of our county’s fabric, both from a reputation standpoint and the economic impact that it has,” Swanger said. Folkmoot is an asset for Haywood County, and it behooves the county to ensure it stays around.

Folkmoot has been losing money in recent years and propped itself up by dipping into its endowment fund. The amount brought in through ticket sales, donations and sponsorships isn’t enough to cover festival costs.

“It is a tough time for nonprofits right now and has been for the past five years,” Babcock said.

Folkmoot leaders began a strategic planning process to dust off and polish up the best of what Folkmoot is, but also reinvigorate it with new elements.

The mission of Folkmoot is to encourage and promote global cultural exchange and awareness. That could be through crafts, arts, language and food — anything that defines a culture — in addition to the international dance and music Folkmoot is best known for, Babcock said.

“How people think, how they live, what they eat, their crafts and their art — all those things go into a culture,” said Dave Stallings, a Folkmoot board member.

It could come in the form of international cuisine tastings, global craft bazaars and educational programs on foreign cultures. Babcock sees lots of opportunity to engage students and put on programs for local schools.

The most basic and critical component, however — a facility to run the festival out of  — remained a huge wildcard.

Now, after 30 years of in existence, Folkmoot will finally own its own home.

“Folkmoot is defining its presence as a leading organization to provide international cultural events. Having a facility we can renovate will bring Folkmoot into that realm,” Johnson said.

But the repairs and renovations the building needs, and the price tag those will carry, are daunting. Folkmoot will launch a capital campaign this year focused on building improvements, which in turn will put Folkmoot back on stable financial footing.

“Folkmoot recognizes that the building is a tremendous opportunity that brings with it challenges. The way we as a board address those challenges is what we are going to be all about,” said Johnson.

Talks of transferring the old school to Folkmoot have been percolating for several months. It needed approval from both the school system and county leaders to bring to fruition.

The school system agreed to part with the building, realizing it would never have a use for it again and that trying to sell it would be a fruitless endeavor. The county commissioners agreed to act as a conduit, a pass-through of sorts for the building to be deeded from the school to the county and the county in turn to Folkmoot.

The school system legally couldn’t gift the building to Folkmoot outright. But the county could, as long as it was to a nonprofit and would be used for public benefit.

The property transfer will have a reverter clause that stipulates the building be used in perpetuity for public purposes.

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