By Maisey Cooley – firstname.lastname@example.org – A&F Editor
Before the days of Bele Chere, tumbleweeds freely roamed the streets of Asheville, Byron Greiner said jokingly. Greiner, the issues chair for the Asheville Downtown Association, said before the festival dominated Asheville, the downtown area was desolate and empty.
“Now, it’s at a significant clash with downtown, because now the downtown has its own vibrancy and a lot of things going for it,” Greiner said. “So the question comes up: Has the festival outlived its’ usefulness?”
Recent decisions from the Asheville City Council indicate the 36-year-old festival will come to an end next year. The reason for the massive cut in this extension of the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts portion of the city agenda lies in its budget. According to city officials, the festival failed to bring in enough revenue to put the budget back into black. A closer look at the numbers poses questions worth examining.
According to Bele Chere organizers, the festival attracts around 300,000 people annually. Asheville’s total population barely equals 36 percent of the festival attendance.
Since the 2007-2008 fiscal year, the budget for Bele Chere suffered a 44 percent decrease, dropping from roughly $820,000 to $460,000. Greiner said much of the money that funds Bele Chere comes from Asheville taxpayers’ pockets.
“There haven’t been many negative comments about the festival,” Greiner said. “A lot of people really love the festival, but when it boils down to whether it is something that you want your taxpayer dollars to support, the answer is kind of no.”
Greiner served on the Bele Chere board of directors for five years.
“I’ve been on the inside (and) the outside of Bele Chere,” Greiner said. “There has also been a lack of support from the City Council to be in the festival business. In other words, is this the right thing, to be using taxpayers’ money to produce a festival? That conversation has been going on for a while.”
Looking at how much the festival gives back to the community provides insight into where the money goes. The Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts department reported revenue of roughly $450,000. According to Bele Chere figures, they gave more than $40,000 of the revenue to local nonprofit organizations, roughly a 9 percent donation.
These numbers, combined with overlooked expenses, such as overtime for festival staff, sanitation, fire and police, have caused the festival to go under financially, Greiner said.
While Bele Chere suffers monetary loss, another of Asheville’s summer music and arts festivals, the Lake Eden Arts Festival, remains unscathed by the shift.
Founder and executive director of LEAF, Jennifer Pickering, says plans for LEAF will proceed without change.
“LEAF and Bele Chere have such complementary timing that I don’t think it’ll affect us one way or another,” Pickering said. “A city festival has a different spirit to it than what LEAF has, which is more of a rural setting. It’s a setting that allows people as a family to camp and be outdoors, and at the same time to get all of the music and arts experience as well.”
LEAF, a nonprofit organization based in Black Mountain, works to blend cultures and communities through infusion of music and art. Pickering said the festival serves as the main fundraiser for the nonprofit’s events and programs in the Asheville area, as well as internationally.
LEAF works with the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts department through its after school programs.
“We’re big fans of the Parks and Rec department, and are open to doing more work with them,” Pickering said.
Greiner said the city of Asheville has not issued a formal invite for an outside organization to assume the funding and planning of Bele Chere, but they suggested it.
“The Downtown Association has not been formally asked, but it might be something we would consider,” Greiner said. “We have a history of working with the city and taking over events like the Holiday Parade when nobody wanted it.”
The future of Bele Chere remains a mystery as festival officials determine the solution for a festival that outgrew its purpose.
According to Greiner, Bele Chere portrays less of the Asheville image each year.
“As board members, when I operated the festival, we reached out to the community to try and get our local artisans to participate and make the festival truly local,” Greiner said. “Unfortunately, it had such a negative connotation with so many groups. They would say, ‘No. Hell no, we don’t want to be a part of Bele Chere,’ because it didn’t reflect the community. It just became a huge street festival that was primarily focused around beer drinking and music that may or may not have been local.”