The town board held an all-day workshop Monday to discuss the future of the festival grounds.
“The first thing we have to establish is a goal and vision for the festival grounds looking toward the future,” said Alderwoman Janet Banks.
“That becomes a backdrop for all the other decisions,” added Maggie Valley Mayor Ron DeSimone.
The town has spent more than $1 million on the festival grounds since 2002 in hard costs: buying the land, putting in lights, building a stage, restrooms and other amenities to turn the barren field into an event venue. It was arguably a good economic investment, given the struggling tourism industry in Maggie. Many of the town’s keystone attractions, from Soco Zoo to Ghost Town to Carolina Nights to Eagle’s Nest Entertainment, had folded during that time.
But it’s the annual operational subsidies that are now the source of consternation for town leaders. Residents have complained about their property taxes going to subsidize and underwrite festivals that don’t particularly benefit them — an age-old debate in Maggie between the tourism-oriented businesses and the average residents.
The town’s festival-related costs in recent years have climbed to $160,000 annually. It amounts to 4 cents on the town’s property tax rate.
When the festival grounds were first created a decade ago, the town struggled to attract events. But now, festival organizers from across the Southeast have lined up to host events there, from motorcycle rallies to band concerts to food festivals to car and trucks shows.
This year, all but three weekends from April through October have been booked by festivals.
“Now that the calendar is full, we can go back and take a look at it,” DeSimone said.
The town now has the luxury of making a “correction” in the more generous policies and support services it has provided to festival organizers in the past.
For example, the town doesn’t charge for use of the festival grounds. In addition, town staff have assisted festival organizers with everything from advertising and promoting their events to hauling ice for them.
“I don’t think the town should have to do the work for vendors,” Alderwoman Saralyn Price said.
The town has already let returning festival organizers know that the assistance they have gotten from town staff in the past as a support crew during events won’t be happening this year.
“We sent out a letter saying the services you have become accustomed to you will not be getting this season,” Town Manager Nathan Clark said. “As a town, we should make sure we give people the best possible facility when they inherit the keys, and it is up to them to make their festival what it needs to be.”
Town leaders say they lack a critical piece of the equation when weighing how much they are willing to plow into the festival grounds each year: what is the return for the business community?
“We need to say ‘OK, this is the economic impact of the festivals’ to determine what, if any, are a legitimate level of expenditures by the town,” said Banks.
DeSimone said business owners are going to be asked to provide substantiated feedback on how they do during festival weekends compared to non-festival weekends. From shops and restaurants to motels and cabin rentals, town leaders want to know whether there is a clear uptick in business due to festival-goers in town.
“If the business community can’t give us hard numbers on ‘we sold more meals’ or ‘we booked more rooms,’ then we don’t know whether we are getting the best bang for our buck,” DeSimone said.
The town also wants to know which festivals benefit the business community the most. Now that there is a high demand for the festival grounds, the town can start to be choosy about which festivals it books.
Clark said the town may want to identify signature events and bill those heavily, rather than simply aiming to book every weekend during the spring, summer and fall.
“There is one mindset that is sell, sell, sell,” Clark said. “But you may be selling it to a ‘D’ event that does more damage to an ‘A’ event the following weekend than it is worth.”
Having a few down weekends isn’t a bad idea to allow the grass a chance to rejuvenate, he said.
For example, the town has had to replace portions of the field over the course of the festival season due to grease being dumped out by food vendors, which creates a dead patch.
“We have to repair those places and have a hard time getting out money back for it,” said Maggie Public Works Director Mike Mchaffey.