By Melanie Threlkeld McConnell
Forget Europe. Haywood County is where the action is for Karen Babcock this summer, and she couldn’t be happier. Well, give her a piece of dark chocolate and she could be.
Babcock is the new executive director of Folkmoot USA, North Carolina’s official international festival. A seasoned traveler, Babcock has spent several summers exploring the Netherlands and neighboring countries with her sister, an international civil rights lawyer, who teaches law for two weeks in July at the University of Amsterdam.
But this July will find Babcock in the throes of Folkmoot, Western North Carolina’s international house party. Hired just seven months ago to lead Haywood County’s biggest tourist draw, Babcock has found that telling people she’s with Folkmoot gets her warm fuzzies from everyone she meets. And it’s more than just good ol’ fashion Southern hospitality.
“They clearly love Folkmoot. There’s just an incredible positive attitude about Folkmoot here,” Babcock says. “I don’t see that people are taking it for granted. I see that people fully realize the value to the community.”
That’s good news for Babcock, who is looking for new sources of revenue now that budget constraints have forced Haywood County officials to slash the festival’s budget by $20,000 this year. “I think about fundraising 24 hours a day,” Babcock says. “We have a lot of the same sponsors as last year, I’m happy to say. Some have leveled out their sponsorships from last year, but we have some new ones, too.”
Some of those include much — needed in-kind contributions, such as catering the all — important volunteer recognition dinner in the fall, she adds.
“We have found that in some cases cutting costs is just as important as raising money. But we like to raise money, too,” she says.
Babcock hopes that expanding Folkmoot’s reach will bring in new audiences and grow the appreciation for the 25-year-old festival’s cultural contributions to Western North Carolina. “The more people we can get in front of and get this incredible international experience to, the better,” she says.
This year the festival will send performers to three new venues: Moore Auditorium in Mars Hill, Burnsville Town Center in Burnsville and Polk County High School in the Tryon area, near the South Carolina border.
Babcock has also stepped up marketing efforts by expanding her media outreach to South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. She says she is trigger ready to help the media get the information they want when they want it, a detail not to be taken lightly.
“A consistent marketing program always pays off. You have to pay attention to and be responsive to media requests,” she says.
On the home front she has increased the exposure of Folkmoot’s logo so that it is prominently displayed and advertised throughout the community. She’s even getting children in on the act by supplying them with — you guessed it — Folkmoot tattoos for the international parade through downtown Waynesville.
Since she arrived last December, Babcock, 48, has immersed herself in the people and places of Western North Carolina and found much to her liking, especially the chocolate shop in downtown Waynesville. “I eat chocolate every day,” she admits. She’s also thrilled to have a concentrated arts and theater arts community, great coffee shops and yes, that chocolate shop that now sells gelato.
Babcock left suburban Maryland and a job as the associate director of the nonprofit Ladew Topiary Gardens to settle in rural Western North Carolina at the urging of friends who had already moved here. She came for a visit and liked what she saw.
“Haywood County reminds me of the places I haven’t been,” she says. “The mountains are just beautiful and amazing and calming and inspiring. I love the outdoors so a place like this is just heaven for me.”
But Babcock discovered that rural living in Maryland wasn’t quite the same as rural living in Western North Carolina. “I come from a rural area 30 miles from Baltimore,” she says. “The community was huge that I was working with at my last nonprofit. The difference here is you know everybody and everybody knows you. That’s quite a different mindset to get your head around. But it’s very nice that people wave at everybody.”
Babcock also is learning to work with a small staff, compared to her last job, which means more multi-tasking for her. She shares the Folkmoot office space with two part-time employees. Hundreds of volunteers keep the festival running.
Though this world traveler with a taste for international cuisine, art and outdoor adventure won’t be sipping wine along the Seine this summer or bicycling through Holland as she has in the past, Babcock has found that Haywood County can hold its own for her. When she needs a fix, she’s got the spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway, the Chef’s Table pasta, which rivals any in Tuscany, and the Chocolate Bear, which satisfies that one-of-a-kind craving as well as Belgium’s famous trademark delicacy. Trust her on this; she’s experienced them all.
And if she feels a few pangs of homesickness for Amsterdam come summer? Well, blessed serendipity. Guess who is part of the Folkmoot lineup this year? The Netherlands. There’s just no place like a new home.