When the town of Maggie Valley bought a grassy field to serve as a town festival grounds in 2005, the hope was that it would bring new visitors and new life to the town’s flagging tourism industry.
Since then, there have been two festival directors, attempts to make the place profitable, and now, an infusion of extra cash from the town is on the table as a boost to the facility.
The town’s proposed budget allocates $120,000 to the festival grounds. But the budget also calls for another $140,000 to put on two festivals — Red, White and Boom, a July 4 festival, and the Americana Roots and Beer festival next spring. The town hopes the festivals will bring in that much in revenue to cover the costs. But if they don’t, the town will be left to pick up the bill.
The festival ground has budgeted an additional $57,000 from the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, a cut of local hotel and motel tax.
For the first few years, the festival grounds languished a bit. The first festival director didn’t rise to the town’s expectations in his few months on the job — the number of events was just too low.
The town’s hopes for the venue were pinned in 2009 on Festival Director Audrey Hager, who came in with an impressive event-planning resume and the intent to turn the place around.
Hager said she’s making strides, boosting the reputation of the festival grounds and making inroads with regional and national festival promoters, who would bring their own festivals and events to the space.
But total success doesn’t happen overnight.
“It’s really re-branding, getting the word out, building our reputation before people will come,” said Hager. “The expectation of the community was it wasn’t happening fast enough. But I think if we start building our reputation as a quality festival community, then that can only help attract promoters to this area to host such events.”
Ideally, said Hager, such events would include things like Red, White and Boom, an Independence Day carnival subsidized heavily by the town and outside affairs like Vettes in the Valley, an annual Corvette show that rents the grounds.
The festival grounds certainly don’t pay for themselves as yet; they lost more than $13,000 on their recent American Roots and Beer festival, due in part to colder weather that weekend.
But town officials say that self-sufficiency isn’t necessarily the end goal.
“I don’t think the town ever believed from the beginning that the festival grounds were going to pay for themselves,” said Town Manager Tim Barth. “With where the rates are set and the number of events that we have, there’s just no way it’s going to pay for itself.”
In the tourism gap left by departing Ghost Town and the closure of other venues like Eaglesnest and Carolina Nights, the real job of the festival grounds was to bring money into the valley, not necessarily make money itself.
“We hope to create enough commerce so that our constituents — the motels and the restaurants and whoever — can pay their taxes and we have a good crowd in town, to hopefully fill in the gap until we can get a few more venues back,” said Mayor Roger McElroy.
Though there might be some tension in using taxpayer money to support businesses that way, McElroy believes it’s only fair. Residents get services that businesses, by and large, do not, such as trash pick-up and road clearing.
And as the large attractions continue to dissipate, supporting the festival grounds is an effort by the town to buoy up business owners and boost their revenues with more traffic — even if it means taxpayers footing the bill for tourism interests.
Not everyone thinks that the festival grounds can be turned around, however.
“I have to be optimistic like others, but you can’t put lipstick on a pig, I guess is a good way to put it,” said Alderman Phil Aldridge. “They say give the young lady that’s our director time, but when do you draw the line?”
Local businesses, for the most part, are behind the measure. It at least brings in the promise of better business.
“I don’t think it’s as easy as people think it is,” said Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House and a four-decade resident of Maggie Valley. “I’m not unhappy with the job they’re doing. I’ve been here for 45 years and seen a lot go on in this town, and I’m very happy the town has taken it over.”
Hager said she’s making progress in the connections department, stirring the interest of national promoters. She returned from a conference in Texas with dozens of leads to follow.
And, said Hager, that’s going to continue to be her tactic, which she’s confident will pay larger dividends as the years progress.
“I’m talking to a lot of promoters all the time,” said Hager. “And I’m just going to keep selling the festival grounds.”