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Folkmoot and Haywood tourism authority do annual tango over grant funding

Folkmoot USA International Dance Festival once again saw its grant funding cut by the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

The  event that brings in international folk dance and music troupes from eight to 10 countries for a 10-day extravaganza has been a signature festival in Haywood County for 30 years. But some on the county tourism authority have grown weary of continued financial support for Folkmoot year after year.

Folkmoot got $8,500 in grants from the tourism agency this year, compared to $14,000 last year. It has seen its funding oscillate in recent years, shrinking over time.

Giving money to the same festivals year after year cuts into the funding the TDA can spend on new events, said Sammy Carver, a tourism board member, during a discussion of Folkmoot funding at a recent tourism board meeting.

“Sometimes these have to stand on their own,” said Carver, with the Waynesville Inn Resort and Spa.

But Tourism Board Member Mike Eveland questioned the wisdom of cutting off a tried-and-true event like Folkmoot.

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“At what point do we say, ‘We like the event and don’t want to lose it?” said Eveland, who manages a large hotel in Maggie Valley. “It is a good cause.”

Folkmoot has struggled financially in recent years. The festival wasn’t making enough in ticket sales to cover the costs of putting it on. The festival has been cut back as a result — from two weeks to only 10 days and from a dozen international troupes to only eight — reducing the overhead from around $400,000 a year to roughly $300,000.

Some lodging owners on the tourism board said they attribute few if any overnight tourists to Folkmoot.

But James Carver, a tourism board member who owns a restaurant in Maggie Valley, said he sees a big impact from Folkmoot, however.

“The business triples from what it would normally be without Folkmoot,” Carver said.

Eveland said that Folkmoot’s impact goes beyond that, however.

“They bring a lot of focus on Haywood County,” Eveland said. “People are coming in, they are eating, they are visiting.”

Ken Howle, a tourism board member with Lake Junaluska Conference Center, said Folkmoot has “phenomenal potential” but questioned whether it is fully capitalizing on the out-of-town market. As a case in point, Howle pulled up Folkmoot’s web site, which seemed primarily focused on ticket sales for local patrons.

“They need a whole plan-your-visit section,” Howle said, suggesting any tourism funding come with a stipulation. “They need to come back to us with a proposal to show us what they plan to do to create more overnight stays.”

Eveland agreed with the compromise idea.

“If they don’t do those things by next year, then we will feel better about doing what we need to do,” Eveland said.

Howle suggested more collaboration between Folkmoot and the tourism board could serve both their interests.

“Folkmoot is without a doubt one of the biggest things we do in Haywood County. We just have no real matrixes to be able to track this,” Howle said.

Rose Johnson, the president of the Folkmoot USA board of directors, said she welcomes the chance.

“I think it presents an opportunity for Folkmoot to work with the tourism authority and have them become more acquainted with what Folkmoot does on an ongoing basis,” Johnson said.

Folkmoot sanctioned an economic impact study last year aimed at quantifying the festival’s influence. The result: Folkmoot has a $9.2 million economic impact in the region. In particular, overnight visitors attending Folkmoot performances in Haywood County spent $6.6 million during their visit. Outside day-trippers spent an additional $89,000 in Haywood County. 

 “It was much higher than even the researcher expected it to be,” Johnson said of the results, which were released earlier this year.

But Lynn Collins, the director of the Haywood tourism authority, questioned whether the economic impact study squares with anecdotal reports from lodging owners that Folkmoot-goers aren’t exactly filling their rooms.

“I have to say that at the Maggie chamber we do get a lot of calls from people asking for information about Folkmoot,” offered Teresa Smith, the director of the Maggie Chamber of Commerce.

Folkmoot had applied for five grants of varying sizes, totaling more than $30,000 in all, to the various tourism funding pots, including a countywide pot and separate pots for each town in the county. Folkmoot got three of its five grant requests partially funded, which Folkmoot Director Karen Babcock said she was pleased with.

The big grant Folkmoot didn’t get was for International Festival Day, a downtown street festival in Waynesville that showcases the international dance troupes throughout the day.

The festival, which is actually put on by the Haywood County Arts Council, was renamed this year as Arts Fest, even though the international flare of Folkmoot dancers had been the festival’s hallmark.

Last year, Folkmoot got $8,000 to underwrite the Folkmoot dancers’ participation at the street festival, but received $0 for this year, a decision made by a separate subcommittee that oversees the Waynesville funding pot.

“That does hurt a little bit, but only because it’s Waynesville and that’s our home,” Babcock said.

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