Throw a dart at a calendar, regardless of month, and you’ll probably land on the date for a festival. Yes, they are plentiful year-round in Western North Carolina, and new ones seem to be popping up all the time.
Bele Chere once took center stage as the largest free street festival in the Southeast, attracting more than 300,000 visitors during its yearly three-day run at the end of July. The city of Asheville pulled the plug on the festival in 2013 at the end of its 35th year.
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ome people lamented the end of Bele Chere, while others cheered saying it had morphed into something that no longer represented the local community. Whether loved or hated, it definitely served its purpose. When it launched in 1979 on a few blocks along Haywood Street, many buildings were boarded up and Asheville desperately needed new energy to bring people back downtown.
Today, downtown Asheville hums with vibrant energy, and current festivals with a much smaller footprint than Bele Chere offer chances to celebrate local arts, music, beer, and crafts. Sitting in a Lexington Avenue courtyard around the corner from her store Hip Replacements, Franzi Charen, head of the Asheville Grown Business Alliance, revealed her thoughts about why the region is so ripe with festivals.
Charen’s festival experience includes helping to create the Big Love Festival, which unfortunately does not take place this year. But she’s also unveiling the brand new Venture Local Fair next month. “I think one reason people love festivals, especially ones entrenched in the local community and highlighting local businesses, is because Asheville is unique like that. We have so much richness here,” she says.
“When Bele Chere started it was much more relevant to what was happening locally,” says Charen. “When Bele Chere started concentrating on bringing so much in from the outside, people felt like it could be any other city. I think Bele Chere lost its specialness, but it was really good for what it did for Asheville. I think that the festivals that emerge need to highlight what is unique about this area.”
“Festivals play a pivotal role in the building of any community,” says Jennifer Pickering, founder of LEAF. “It’s a colorful way to build community, create traditions, and have an impact through music and art. It allows people to engage in a meaningful way.”
Pickering founded the LEAF festival in Black Mountain in 1995, and new this year is the LEAF Downtown Asheville festival on the first weekend in August.
“We recognized summer is a good time for us to do something, but we wanted to incorporate more of our partners in Asheville and have a broader reach,” says Pickering. “We want to be very inclusive and welcoming of all of Asheville, as well as our visitors. Being downtown gives us the opportunity to give more of a local focus and explore some of the things we aren’t able to do at the LEAF Festival, so it’s a great complement.”
She hopes LEAF Downtown Asheville gives voice to many local neighborhoods and creates a wonderful opportunity for family gatherings in the heart of downtown. “I hope it uses the beauty of music and art to bridge some really beautiful curiosity, understanding, and coming together of our community to provide a real feel for the creativity in Asheville,” Pickering says.
While she’s excited about the new LEAF Downtown festival, Pickering emphasizes that LEAF in Black Mountain will continue to offer its colorful music-laden events in fall and spring.
“This year, from October 15 to 17, we’ll be celebrating New Orleans ten years after Katrina,” says Pickering. The lineup of performing artists includes four time Grammy Award winning artist Aaron Neville; Preservation Hall Jazz Band – legendary band touring 150 days per year since 1961; and Rebirth Brass Band, along with many others. “We hope for those who haven’t made it out to Black Mountain for LEAF that they’ll take advantage of this international-quality, family and friends festival in their own backyard.”
A consecutive run wasn’t in the cards for the Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival (LAAFF), but after a short hiatus the festival returned last year and made enough money to go forward again this year. Sunday, September 6, is the date for this funky festival that celebrates the creative, alternative culture present on Lexington Avenue.
Kitty Love, executive director of the Asheville Arts Council, started LAAFF in 2001 with her ex-husband, Michael Mooney. At that time, they owned Sky People Art Gallery and Studio. “When I first came to Asheville, Lexington Avenue was one of the first things that drew me here because I saw the strong presence of creative and alternative culture, and so we opened the gallery on Lexington,” Love says.
They started hearing rumors that a giant convention center was in the works. Whether that was true or not, Love says she doesn’t know, but the possibility caused worry that such a center would absorb portions of Lexington Avenue.
“We were concerned about how growth might threaten independent business, so we wanted to do a street festival that celebrated not only what we were doing, but the street itself, and to highlight how amazing Lexington Avenue culture is,” she says. “So that’s how LAAFF started. We were just going to do a block party. We didn’t expect to do something three blocks long, but every time we met with people there were more and more ideas. LAAFF evolved into this thing with a manifesto. There were probably 75 collaborators, and it touches on everything from sustainability to environmental consciousness to healthy lifestyle food choices to art and creativity. The manifesto in a nutshell is all local, all original, handcrafted, local creativity.”
Popularity of the festival led to public safety concerns. More than 20,000 people attended in 2010 and crowded the three festival blocks. They tried to alleviate this problem by expanding the festival to two days and expanding the footprint, but ultimately lost money and had to take a brief hiatus.
It’s back on track with funky events, colorful costumes, kids’ activities, and creativity galore. “LAAFF is about purchasatory creativity,” says Love. “Anything they spend their money on at the festival supports that concept. Everything is hand picked. It’s handcrafted, artisanal, farm-to-table. If we purchase things that send our money out of the geographic area, we’re losing wealth.”
Arts 2 People is an organization that emerged out of LAAFF, and Love served as its executive director for 10 years before moving to her current role at the Asheville Arts Council. Arts 2 People continues to organize and operate the festival. As for the future, Love hopes for expansion.
“I would like to see us expand the footprint,” she says. “I think we’ll have to if the popularity is there. I think that now with the kind of governance we have it should be stable, but it could always rain.”
Pitfalls of Festival Planning
Managers at Oskar Blues Brewery in Brevard had to think fast when state Alcohol Law Enforcement officers showed up at their 2nd Annual Burning Can Festival in July and prohibited more than two dozen out of state breweries from pouring beer at the event because they didn’t have the proper state permits.
Oskar Blues took full responsibility and worked to provide a positive solution to other brewers as well as participants who had paid $50 each for tickets. They refunded all the tickets, gave brewers $2,000 to cover traveling expenses, and turned the festival into a free private party.
Proceeds from Burning Can were earmarked for the brewery’s Can’d Aid Foundation and the local environmental nonprofit Mountain True. While they took a loss on those plans, some festival attendees passed on their refunds to these organizations.
Franzi Charen, founder of the Asheville Grown Business Alliance and owner of Hip Replacements, shudders when she recalls having to call vendors, musicians, and volunteers on the eve of a festival to tell them it was cancelled.
“It was 2013 and we were having the Big Love festival on the first Sunday in May,” she says. “They were calling for hurricane-like weather. It was 45 degrees with pelting rain—almost hail. It was dangerous. One of the organizers and I went up to the park at 8:30 in the morning in case anyone showed up. The wind was blowing the rain sideways. One of the park lights broke—a major light pole and it fell right in front of us. We were like, ‘yeah, we’re glad we made that call.’
“We spent four months running around and getting everything together for the festival, and then we had to start all over and try to make it up to everybody by having it in September. So we wound up planning two festivals,” she says.
Meghan Rogers, executive director of the Asheville Downtown Association, agrees that weather is always a big concern, but she says there are other hurdles that the average festival goer never thinks about.
“People don’t see the set up and break down part. We get to Downtown After 5 at eight in the morning. It starts at five in the afternoon. The event ends at nine, but we leave at midnight. We also have to be prepared for other things. We rely on volunteers, and we have a huge crew of really awesome volunteers, but occasionally someone can’t make it. If you’re not prepared to fill that shift with somebody else, a floater, or move people around, then you get yourself caught and you’re not ready for the festival,” she says.
And then there are the stories that even the most seasoned festival planners can’t anticipate, like this one told by Jennifer Pickering, founder of LEAF:
“We had someone show up years ago. He had a huge trailer and took up 10 parking spots in the main parking area. He claimed to have time traveling horses and said they needed to be in that spot specifically because of their time traveling nature. We had to convince him to move them, yet let him feel honored. He ultimately did remove the horses from the festival.”
Tantalizing Tastes: Asheville Wine and Food Festival
The Asheville Wine & Food Festival (AW&FF) is an opportunity to sample some of the best farm-to-table cuisine that Asheville has to offer. In addition, wineries, breweries, distilleries, food producers, and vendors will be in attendance with plenty of samples.
The event is divided into three sections: Elixir, Sweet, and the Grand Tasting. Each event takes place on a separate day.
Competitions began in early May to select the best mixologists and chefs to compete in the festival events. Already slated to compete at Elixir on August 20 are mixologists Justin Ferraby of Pulp, Noah Hermanson of Sunny Point Café, and Spencer Schultz of Rhubarb Asheville. Chefs chosen to compete at the Asheville Scene’s Chef’s Challenge on August 22 include chef Steve Goff and chef Hollie West.
Bob Bowles, director of the Asheville Wine & Food Festival, says the competitions are more like showcases, especially with the high caliber of talent. The Iron Chef style competition requires each participant to make the best dish using a secret ingredient. Likewise, six mixologists will compete for the most sumptuous elixir made with a secret ingredient.
As stated by Bowles, the festival attracts a wide range of visitors. About half of attendees are from Western North Carolina, for the other 50% it’s a great destination festival.
Asheville often ranks among the best places to live and retire, but it’s also a highly touted foodie destination Livability.com ranked Asheville number four in its ‘Top 10 Foodie Cities of 2014.’ In June 2015, Business Jet Traveler magazine listed Asheville among the six ‘Best U.S. Foodie Meccas.’ In April 2015 Collaborate Magazine included Asheville in its ‘Top 12 Foodie Cities For Meetings in 2015.’
[quote float=”right”]With 140 exhibits and 165 food producers and vendors, AFWF fills all three floors of the U.S. Cellular Center for the grand tasting event. [/quote]
More than 145 local and international wineries will be present, with wines to taste and bottles to purchase. There will also be dozens of breweries and distilleries on hand.
“The emerging trend is spirits,” Bowles says, “bartenders like to come to the event to taste new spirits.” And one place they can sample them is the AFWF, especially because the Asheville Board of Alcoholic Control (ABC) does not allow tasting.
Last year the festival added the commercial winery component to the competition, attracting quite a few more wineries. “Watch what you wish for,” Bowles quips, “now the judges have to taste them all.”
AW&FF chooses a nonprofit to make a contribution to each year. This is the second year they will support Asheville Independent Restaurant Association’s grant for students enrolled in the A-B Tech Culinary Program.
With 140 exhibits and 165 food producers and vendors, AFWF fills all three floors of the U.S. Cellular Center for the grand tasting event.
“Bring comfortable shoes,” Bowles advises.
Stretchy pants might not be a bad idea either.
As mentioned earlier, Franzi Charen has been hard at work planning for the new Venture Local Fair on September 25 and 26, with a conference the first day and a fun festival the second day. It’s an example of an event that has been re-envisioned and repurposed.
“Venture Local Western North Carolina was originally a conference put on by AdvantageWest. It was a business conference/entrepreneurial conference focused on local businesses in our region,” she said. “It was for folks who wanted to obtain capital, meet other entrepreneurs, and learn about different aspects of business. In 2013 they no longer had the capacity to run the conference, so in 2014 we went to them and asked if they would mind if we took it over because it had a name and had a draw.”
In 2011 Charen helped create the Big Love festival in partnership with the organizers of the Big Crafty. They ran Big Love jointly for three years. Last year, the Big Crafty group took over running Big Love while Asheville Grown Business Alliance went into a new direction. Now, Big Love isn’t happening this year, but Charen is incorporating some of the elements of Big Love into the Venture Local fair on Saturday, September 26. It runs noon to 6pm, with 100 vendors, food trucks, and buskers.
“Garlic Fest is also going to be part of it. Every year True Seed does a Garlic Fest and we’re incorporating that within the [Venture Local] festival, so there will be a garlic trail, like a scavenger hunt, and we’ll partner with Asheville Flyer for Kids and have lots of great activities for kids, and Roots+Wings School will also be there,” Charen says.
Mountain Dance And Folk Festival
Not all of the festivals are youngsters; one long-running festival is now in its 88th year. The Mountain Dance and Folk Festival runs August 6, 7, and 8 at the Diana Wortham Theatre in Asheville.
Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a Madison County native known as the “Minstrel of the Applachians,” founded the festival in 1928. He had a unique style of organizing on the fly. Performers and dancers never knew ahead of time when they’d appear on stage.
“I remember standing on the loading dock of the old City Auditorium and Bascom coming out and saying, ‘You all are next.’ You never knew if you would dance at 7pm or 1:30 in the morning. He did the line-up in his head,” says Carol Peterson, member of the Folk Heritage Committee and long-time square dancer at Shindig on the Green and the Mountain Dance and Music Festival.
It’s much different today as organizers have to be very regimented to keep it flowing smoothly.
“We have many more people wanting to play and sing and dance than we have slots for,” says Peterson, “so it’s the brightest and best, as well as new folks and young folks. Everybody brings their flavor. On Thursday night it’s hometown night with a more local crowd. Friday and Saturday includes people who may have to make a trip to come here. We had a group from England who performed last year.”
The festival is the culmination of the summer Shindig on the Green series, and that event does follow the more casual approach Lunsford initiated, with potential performers trying out for the committee under the trees with hopes of getting a nod to go to the stage. It’s fitting that Buncombe County named the stage at Pack Square Park after Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
Celebrating The Apple Harvest
Keeping the North Carolina Apple Festival fresh continues to be a priority for executive director David Nicholson. He realizes that many families across the region head to Hendersonville each year for this four-day festival, and he wants to create new energy so that folks never get bored and fail to return.
“This is my 10th year as executive director and I decided early on that we would rotate vendors,” he says. “We rotate our arts and crafts vendors after three years. This means we exchange out 35% of our arts and crafts vendors every single year. We also have an exhibit block where we try to do something new and different. This year we have PNC Bank’s Mobile Learning Adventure. It’s a program designed for preschool children. You’re going to see a lot of new things at our festival every single year.”
He’s also excited about updates to the festival website at www.ncapplefestival.org. They’ve made it mobile friendly so that festival participants can access important information while they’re in downtown Hendersonville.
“They’ll be able to access a complete list of entertainment and all events by clicking each day,” Nicholson says. “They’ll also find answers to frequently asked questions like ‘Where are the restrooms?’ and ‘Where is First Aid?’”
Now in its 69th year, the North Carolina Apple Festival originally started as a spring event in Saluda. Nicholson says it moved to Hendersonville at the end of World War II and was changed to September. About 20 years ago, organizers launched the street fair.
This year’s festival runs September 4 – 7 on a nine-block stretch of Main Street and features 15 local apple growers, along with other vendors and entertainment. “I tell folks you can get a single apple, a caramel apple, or a bushel of apples that were picked that week,” says Nicholson. “There are also fried apple pies or a slice of apple pies—they are actually from our apple growers. We don’t let anyone else sell that.”
5Point Film Festival
New to the region, and set to launch later this month, the 5Point Film Festival brings its presence to the Southeast via its regional concert-style film festival on August 14 and 15 at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, the New Mountain Amphitheater, and various spaces around Asheville, with a two-day celebration of art, community, and short adventure films.
The festival offers a “film concert” experience, including special guests, live performance, and what are dubbed “5Point style” surprises throughout the evening.
“This area was my first introduction to what ‘outdoor lifestyle’ really meant. It is incredibly rewarding to be bringing 5Point back to this area that inspired me to live a life of adventure. I look forward to inspiring that same passion in others, and introducing audiences to the balanced, committed, humble, respectful, and purposeful side of adventure,” said Sarah Wood, executive director. “Those are the ‘5 points’.”
Included among over 30 short films over the two days are regional premiere screenings of Denali, 55 Hours in Mexico, and Frank and the Tower. Special guests include South Carolina locals Thomas Woodson and Karl Thompson, West Virginia locals, Pat Goodman, Asheville locals, Pat Keller and Brett McCall as emcees, and a special 5Point premiere performance by modern dance company Blue Ridge Dance Collective.
“5Point believes in celebrating and building strong communities around positive shared experiences. We believe in being good stewards of the environment. And we believe that inspiring storytelling through film and moving live experiences are the best way to impact a community, bring them together, ignite local economic development through our outdoor industry network, and spark positive change,” said Sarah Wood. “Asheville is a vibrant, outdoor, forward-thinking community that matches the ethos of 5Point.”
5Point works with local outdoor retailers, bike shops, and community organizations as well as local artists to showcase the talents of the region and inspire the outdoor communities’ growth. With aspirations to grow its Asheville festival into another large four-day event similar to its Rockies region signature event, 5Point Film Festival is in its eighth season producing a four-day festival in Carbondale, Colorado, at the end of April each year. In an effort to expand its mission of inspiring adventure and storytelling of all kinds, the nonprofit created a unique 5Point style show in each region, rather than bring the Carbondale show on a tour. By creating regional hubs across the country, 5Point intends to inspire other communities and celebrate their local filmmakers, athletes, and artists. 5Point also plays an important role in the economic development and recreational tourism in these regions. Other regional festival hubs located in Somerville, Massachusetts, Bellingham, Washington, and future Midwest location to-be-announced, are scheduled for future dates in 2015 and 2016.
Another area of festival life exploding in the mountains revolves around events focused on the ever-expanding craft beer industry. Now in its 19th year, the Brewgrass Festival created by Barley’s Taproom owner Jimi Rentz is Asheville’s original beer festival and remains popular. It’s slated this year for September 19 at Memorial Stadium, which is just above McCormick Field. This year’s event features more than 50 breweries. A $55 ticket gives beer lovers a chance to taste creative brews from local and national breweries.
[quote float=”left”]“Festivals play a pivotal role in the building of any community… It’s a colorful way to build community and have an impact through music and art. ” [/quote]
This festival has endured some growing pains. When it was held at Martin Luther King Park, the crowds and traffic produced headaches for some residents who complained. Rentz ultimately found a solution by moving the festival in 2014 to Memorial Stadium.
Other beer related festivals have popped up along the way, including the Beer City Festival at the end of Asheville Beer Week, which runs the last week in May, and the Asheville Beer Fest Winter Warmer in January.
The Asheville Downtown Association (ADA) produces Oktoberfest to focus on the local beer economy. “It’s been on the South Slope for the past two years,” says ADA executive director Meghan Rogers. “Before that it was on Wall Street, which we outgrew. We’re actually considering moving it again. Just in the two years it has been on the South Slope, we’ve had a huge number of businesses go in. One of the things we think a lot about when we program an area of downtown is having a positive impact on business, and a Saturday in October shutting a street down may not have a positive impact on the businesses, so we are considering moving it.”
As to why this area has so many festivals, Rogers says, “I think it’s a combination of things. I think we have a community that wants to be engaged. They want to be out and about. They want to see their friends and bring their family downtown. I think it also builds a sense of community pride and gives people an opportunity for civic engagement.”
In Brevard, Oskar Blues Brewery offers its Burning Can Festival in July. This festival started at Oskar Blues in Colorado four years ago, and has finished its second year in Western North Carolina. Oskar Blues was the first craft brewery to can its beer. Since founder Dale Katechis is an avid mountain biker, he wanted to be able to take his beer in a backpack and crack it open on the trail. The Burning Can Festival celebrates canned craft beer in all its glory and combines a love of fresh beer with bands and outdoor adventures.
“We are looking to do more festivals that include beer, music, and sports. We just haven’t done the full program yet,” says Anne-Fitten Glenn, Oskar Blues marketing director. “Festivals are a great way for people to showcase their communities and interests and the natural beauty here.”
She also sees potential at the REEB Ranch that Oskar Blues purchased in late 2012. It’s located a few miles from the brewery, with great access to Dupont State Forest.
“We’d like to take advantage of this beautiful property and plan more festivals,” Glenn says. “We’re big on music too. Music isn’t an afterthought for us. It’s part of what our culture is, and we’re invested in getting great acts.”
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