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County to “look at option” for BBQ festival

Polk County officials have agreed to look into ways the Blue Ridge Barbecue festival might be saved.
The Carolina Foothills Chamber of Commerce board of directors last week voted to end the festival. Since then, people have expressed concern over the decision and its timing, which makes it almost impossible for another entity to take over running the festival this year.
Commissioners discussed the barbecue festival at their meeting Monday. Polk County Manager Ryan Whitson asked to attend a chamber of commerce meeting planned for today to “look at options.” Whitson did not discuss details of what the county might do, but said hed like to look into the festival and explore options.
The chamber is scheduled to meet today at 4 p.m. to discuss the recent cancellation of the festival. Whitson said he would like to attend the meeting, along with Polk County Economic Development Director Kipp McIntyre, Agriculture Economic Development Director Lynn Sprague and Polk County Travel and Tourism Director Melinda Young.
At Monday’s meeting, several residents urged commissioners to do something to help save the festival.
Peter Eisenbrown, the festivals music director, is leading a group in attempt to save the festival. He told commissioners he is concerned about the sudden demise of the festival and believes there should be a coalition to save it for the county.
“This event has local, regional and national attention,” Eisenbrown said. “If the event doesnt occur this year, its gone.”
Eisenbrown says he believes the chamber needs to hold the event this year and then let another organization take it over for following years, because there are only five months until the June event.
“Right now were trying to see if we can save this event,” Eisenbrown said. “We want to see what the county can bring to this event whether its financial or services.”
Jim Tabb, the originator of the event, said the news of the festival being canceled came as a surprise to him. He said it saddens him when he thinks of all the hours invested in the event over the years by chamber members and other community volunteers. He discussed articles being written in national magazines about the event and this area as well as a new show on TLC called BBQ Pitmasters, which has seven cooking teams, four of which have cooked at the Blue Ridge Barbecue Festival.
“Thats PR we couldnt afford if we sold the county,” Tabb said. “We have actually choked on our own success is what happened. I dont understand how we can just pitch it.”
Larry Swartz, a local CPA who served as the treasurer for the chamber when the festival began and was on the original steering committee, said the first year made a profit of appproximately $20,000. He said the the chamber lost $93,000 the second year, when the festival was held at FENCE and was rained out.
The chamber held on to the festival despite the bad year, Swartz said, because they believed it was important to the community. By the time he left the chamber in 1998, Swartz said the festival had been one of the top festivals for some years and the chamber profited about $50,000 on about $140,000 of expenses.
“I firmly believe theres a lot of room for improvement here,” said Swartz. “I believe its the only function in Polk County that brings the entire community together. I hate to see that go.”
Terry Schager, who was the festivals entertainment director for the first two years, asked why if the county is investing in business development, “are we destroying the number one tourist attraction.”
He said before the festival is let go, someone needs to study what its worth. Someone should copyright the festival and sell it, he said.
“We lose the brand and its gone,” Schager said.