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Feelin’ festive: Local event planners examine festival trends

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

June through October is known as festival season in the mountains, and its no wonder why. During the five-month stretch there’s at least one festival every weekend somewhere in the region.

Despite the plethora of festivals, there’s a shortage on variety. Festivals may sound interesting and different enough on their surface, but anyone traveling the festival circuit will find that certain descriptions appear over and over — arts, crafts, food, entertainment. It’s a formula that can be applied to any festival, anywhere. The reason is because it works.

Those who sell on the festival circuit need the formula to help earn a living, from the man with the funnel cake cart to the woodworker who specializes in duck decoys and is there to attract customers. Those who come to the festivals often are visitors to the area staying just long enough to enjoy some street clogging and roasted corn on a stick, without realizing that they could do it all over again in another town if they just stuck around a little bit longer.

Here, festivals tend to fall into one of three general festival categories — arts and crafts, heritage, and other.

Arts and crafts festivals may include everything from homemade beaded Christmas ornaments to turned wood bowls, crocheted tissue box covers to handmade silver jewelry.

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A heritage fest focuses more on tradition with clogging, mountain music, jams and jellies, craft demonstrations such as basket or soap making, and maybe some competitions such as log sawing or horseshoes.

The other festivals are those that inherently blend these categories, but add a twist such as environmental education (Sylva’s Greening Up the Mountains and Maggie Valley’s Trout Festival), buck the trend altogether (such as the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival), or use the area as the backdrop for cultural exploration (like the Waynesville-based Folkmoot International Dance Festival).


Proposed purpose

When Dawn Hummel began planning the 22nd Annual Dillsboro Arts and Music Festival, to be held June 10, she found that her corporate training really wasn’t getting her very far.

“I’m finding this to be a very different animal,” Hummel said.

In the corporate environment, it was easier to assign tasks to various departments and work with internal resources. With the Arts and Music Festival, it’s ended up that there’s more pleading and finagling to orchestrate the entirely volunteer group.

The festival’s previous coordinator had left Hummel a list of good people to contact for traffic control, extra seating and vendor booths. Working from that she also plotted out a time line, sending out a call to artists in early spring, and serving as one on a panel of three to choose which crafters would become a part of the festival.

“The biggest criteria for us is that it be handmade,” Hummel said. “In this town we really are trying to keep alive the heritage of the area and the music of the area.”

However, what the festival defines as “the area” and what Jackson County or even Western North Carolina locals would call “the area” are often different things. The Arts and Music Festival will include artisans from as far away as southern Georgia and western Tennessee.

The same weekend in neighboring Macon County, the Franklin Folk Heritage Association will hold the Franklin Folk Fest. The festival is an outgrowth of the association’s mission to preserve local culture — not as in the historical association sense of buildings and artifacts, but as in activities and customs, the more esoteric side of history.

For example, the association is working to preserve sounds that may be lost with the changing of the times such as milk from a cow hitting the bottom of the bucket, or butter in a churn.

The association has signed up local residents to demonstrate the skills they learned as children and used in day-to-day life, from sheering a sheep, carding and spinning wool, to blacksmithing, usage of herbal and medicinal plants, quilting, even doing the laundry.

“We don’t just go out and get people who moved into the area,” said Janet Jacobs Greene, festival coordinator.

Many of the demonstrators are in their 70s and 80s, and their knowledge is a non-renewable resource.

“We don’t know how long we can go, because like I say, our folks are dying out,” Greene said.

Heritage association members are encouraging younger generations to learn traditional skills, and while that helps keep the history alive, it’s just not the same as having lived it. Given its focus, the Franklin Folk Festival stands to reign as one of the most genuine heritage festivals around. History books will show the settlers never settled around a campfire for Polish sausage with onions and green peppers, nor bought souvenir pins from the last village they visited, nor used an inflatable slide to keep their kids entertained.

Such things are indicative of festivals that have lost their way, Greene said.

“It’s a beef I have about festivals, they have to raise their money and they become entities in and of themselves. They’re a business,” Greene said. “They become a business and not a way to have the community gather, which is very important in a festival.”

Folkmoot International Dance Festival director Jamye Cooper agreed.

“Down here you’ve got to buy stuff,” she said, noting how festivals where she used to live in the Washington, D.C. area were more about socializing with friends.


Come together

On Memorial Day weekend Bryson City held it’s 6th Annual Heritage Festival. The festival is one of the longer in the area — spanning three days — and succeeds in its mission to bring locals and visitors together.

“When you work these festivals you see several transitions during the day,” said Gwen Bushyhead, Swain County Chamber of Commerce director. “A lot of the local people are extremely interested in some of the contests.”

For example, the log-sawing competition is popular thanks to local celebrity Phillip Lindsay, who shaved six seconds off his record from last year to get the job done in a mere 17 seconds.

“He makes it look like the log is butter,” Bushyhead said.

During the town’s annual Fourth of July celebration, Bushyhead estimates that the crowd is evenly divided between locals and tourists, in part because the event isn’t made to target an outside audience.

“We don’t do it to bring visitors in, especially for Fourth of July because they’re already here,” she said.

The state’s official international festival, Folkmoot, puts an interesting spin on bringing the community together, as it relies heavily on community to pull it off in the first place.

The two-week festival held in late July brings in dance troupes from around the world to stay in Waynesville and be shuttled from Murphy to Marion to perform on a daily basis. Local volunteers from throughout the region help organize performances, tend to dancers’ needs, drive buses, translate, and even provide medical attention.

The festival’s opening parade, held in the middle of the afternoon on a workday, always brings downtown business owners out of their shops to mingle with families and watch the dancers make their way down to the historic courthouse for performances that highlight the weeks to come.

And with the revamping of the festival’s International Day, festivalgoers will have an even greater chance to interact with performers.

“What we need to do is focus more on being like an international bazaar,” said Cooper, Folkmoot director.

The day will include visiting countries’ troupes selling handmade craft items from their native lands. Previously troupes may have brought things to sell, but the emphasis was not on them being handmade — rather it was done simply to help troupes raise money for the trip. Now, the bazaar also will help share their culture.

International Day is a tremendous draw. Five years ago, estimates indicated crowds of 20,000 to 30,000. Cooper said that estimate may be somewhat generous, and pegged the number closer to between 15,000 and 20,000. While Folkmoot performances are ticketed events, International Festival Day sheds light on the problem with free events with no specific entry and exit points — there is no accurate way to gauge attendance, and thereby no way to accurately calculate the festival’s economic impact.

A release following up on MerleFest 2006 — a ticketed, three-day music festival in Wilkesboro — estimated total participation, including volunteers and school children, at 82,618, according to Managing Director Ted Hagaman. Paid attendance increased by 14 percent, contributing to an estimated regional economic impact of more than $16 million.

The festival is a prime example of making coming together about business and community. Proceeds from MerleFest have paid for numerous capital improvements at Wilkes Community College, including the Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Garden for the Senses, the Doc and Merle Watson Theatre, fiber-optic wiring for the campus, and the endowment of scholarships for its students. Also, the festival has pledged more than $1 million to the Next Step Campaign, the first phase of which includes the Science and Technology Building scheduled to open this fall.


Something to do

Perhaps part of MerleFest’s success can be attributed to having something to do at the festival other than walking around and buying things.

While heritage festivals and other types of festivals offer demonstrations or contests or something to actually “do,” a majority of arts and crafts festivals are geared toward the spender. Granted, they’re terrific places to get some Christmas shopping done early, but if the kids are sent out with $10 in their pocket to spend as they choose they won’t get very far. As the festivals have grown in number, and consumers’ tastes grown more refined, the price on street sold artwork has gone up.

Teresa Pennington, who organized the Church Street Arts and Crafts Festival in downtown Waynesville 22 years ago, says that festivals are good at attracting business for her paintings. She does 23 shows a year, some indoors and some street festivals, selling works for several hundred dollars. She also offers custom framing, so buyers can order on site and then have the finished product shipped to them.

The focus on sales also may contribute to what makes the Church Street festival one of the less interactive for those who haven’t brought a credit card or a wad of cash.

“In that limited area it’s very difficult to provide something for people to do,” Pennington said.

Pennington said that one of the arts and crafts festivals she goes to in Atlanta provides storytelling for children, but she isn’t sure if it would work in downtown Waynesville.

“I don’t really know if that would make that much of a difference to people or not,” she said.

The Church Street festival already has more going on than most of its kind, with discounted booth rentals given to those willing to demonstrate their crafts and music, Pennington said.

However, activities help keep festival-goers around longer and make them feel more like a part of things. In Bryson City, the Fourth of July celebration includes a pet show in which everyone is a winner from the waggiest tail to the pet who looks most like his or her owner. Such participatory events are an integral part of the festival atmosphere, Bushyhead said.

“I don’t know why other people don’t do that. It just seems to be a no-brainer,” she said.

In Maggie Valley, the Trout and Heritage Festival to be held June 24 and 25 aims to educate as well as entertain. The festival will focus on the importance of mountain trout, as well as emphasize non-profits and nature groups working to preserve the environment, from clean water to greenway development.

There also will be a youth fly fishing clinic including safety and conservation training, a mobile aquarium on loan from Raleigh, a heritage market that will sell only folk art and handcrafted items, and live music with the Rafe Hollister band, a group specifically chosen to help draw in a younger crowd. Admission to the festival, which will also include a keynote speaker, is $2 for adults.

“This is a non-festival festival,” said Ashley Mullis, Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce event coordinator.


Improving the festival formula

Planners throughout the region say each of their festivals are unique, which is true up to a point. Looking at each county’s festivals and events calendar individually shows less overlap and more variety — at least within county lines.

Several planners say there’s only limited value in comparing notes and cross-referencing calendars against neighboring counties because residents and visitors most likely will choose a festival where they are over one farther away.

“We all have a Fourth of July festival, and there’s plenty of people to go around,” said Tony Angel, Franklin Chamber of Commerce public relations director/special events coordinator.

However, this tendency to plan just based on what’s going on within an individual county may have to change as the region develops a unified brand based on the establishment of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, Bushyhead said. The heritage area is a 25-county area spanning Western North Carolina from Cherokee to Surry counties and anointed by U.S. Congress as a place where “natural, cultural, historic and recreational resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally distinctive landscape arising from patterns of human activity shaped by geography.”

“People who are coming to Western North Carolina do not care one bit about counties,” Bushyhead said.

What they do care about is that they’re in the mountains, and they’ve come here looking for something to do.

Franklin’s Chamber of Commerce hopes to make connections between festival-goers and the region’s offerings by resurrecting what was once called the Festival of Festivals.

“The whole premise of the event is it’s a showcase of the region’s kind of family-friendly festivals and events,” Angel said.

Rebranded and renamed the Festival of the Mountains, the festival will highlight what is unique about different festivals throughout WNC and north Georgia.

“We think with enough work and enough push behind this thing, it has the potential to become one of the premiere festivals in the region and in the Southeast, too,” Angel said.

The festival will be a festival in and of itself, and serve as a promotional tool for other festivals. What Franklin plans to get out of it is visitors during the shoulder season, as the festival will be held Memorial Day weekend.

“If it is the festival we want it to be, they will be back,” Angel said.

One of the benefits of the Festival of the Mountains is that it will illustrate the multicultural aspects of WNC from the African-based Goombay festival in Asheville to Franklin’s own Taste of Scotland. Such festivals are unique additions to the festival landscape — and standout as such — but also may get lost in amongst the bevy of mountain-oriented fests.

“There’s not a strong multicultural community,” Folkmoot Director Cooper said of areas outside Asheville, where Greek and Jewish festivals are part of the routine season.

Bushyhead agreed, saying that where she moved from in Milwaukee there were more ethnic groups to bolster the festival scene.

“Polish fest, Irish fest, German fest — you go for the food,” Bushyhead said.

Locally, the Hispanic population has just begun organizing the Third Annual Western North Carolina Hispanic Heritage Month via Jackson County’s multicultural organization Bridges to Community. The organization also held a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration earlier this year.

Another option to promote festivals is to combine them, and cross-market so as to draw a bigger audience on one weekend, rather than distribute the crowds over two. Such is the case with Bryson City’s Fireman’s Day Festival and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s Railfest held in September.

“Putting those two together just is going to be a win-win thing,” Bushyhead said.

Bryson City also will partner with the railroad for the Chili Cook Off, held at the train depot. Train riders will have an enhanced experience, and chili cookers will have more mouths to feed.

In addition, Bushyhead recommended a central calendar that keeps tabs on all events throughout the county — including church singings, non-profit fundraisers, everything there is going on so as to plan together.

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