BBQ festival could still survive

Published 6:43 pm Friday, January 15, 2010

The Blue Ridge Barbecue and Music Festival may not be dead just yet.
Just a week ago, the Carolina Foothills Chamber of Commerce declared the 16-year-old event like the wicked witch “not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.”
However, after the shock of that announcement reverberated across the community, the chamber agreed to discuss the situation further, largely at the urging of festival entertainment chairman Peter Eisenbrown.
About 50 people gathered Wednesday afternoon at a meeting chamber president Andy Millard, festival chairman from 1998 to 2005, said was called “to explore ways to preserve the festival.”
“We are all on the same side,” Millard said to start the discussion. “We all have the interest of the area, and the business community at heart. After 16 years, we all love the festival. However, I am in the business of balancing risk and reward and the current ratio is extremely unfavorable to the chamber.”
Joining Carolina Foothills Chamber of Commerce board members, and current and past festival managers at the meeting were Polk County commissioners Ray Gasperson, Renee McDermott, Tommy Melton and Warren Watson, Polk County Manager Ryan Whitson, Tryon Town Manager Justin Hembree and Tryon councilman Doug Arbogast, Polk County Economic Development Commission chairman Ambrose Mills and executive director Kipp McIntyre, Polk County Travel & Tourism director Melinda Young, and Harmon Field Park and Recreation Supervisor George Alley.
Carl Caudle, owner of the Pine Crest Inn, a chamber board member and past chamber president, said he was shocked by the cancellation, though he understood the chambers concerns about the size and profitability of the festival.
“The festivals value goes way beyond profits to the chamber,” Caudle said. “It brings tourists. I dont believe we fully understand the benefits of having a national reputation event here. You cannot buy that kind of publicity. Polk County is a tertiary market. We compete way down the chain. With this event, weve gotten publicity in “Martha Stewart Living,” “Southern Living,” airline magazines, and on the Food Network, just to mention a few. If we lose the BBQ, we lose the single event that puts us on the map.”
After about two hours of discussion, it was decided that county and town officials would meet with the chamber leadership today to gather more detailed financial information for further discussion.
During the meeting, county manager Whitson offered to provide Polk County Transportation services to the festival, offsetting about $11,000 in costs for trams, as well as to consider dropping the countys transfer station solid waste tipping fees.
Tryon manager Hembree offered to have his board consider dropping town fees, which ran to $6,600 for town and police services. The festival also paid about $7,000 to rent Harmon Field.
Festival committee members in conversation have said they could produce significant festival budget cuts.
On Thursday morning, after sleeping on it, chamber president Andy Millard said he thought it was possible the festival might survive and be run again this coming June.
“Its a possibility,” he said. “Well just see what happens. I am not a betting man, so I would not put odds on it at this point.”
The chambers dilemma was explained in detail at the meeting.
“No one questions the economic benefit,” said Dave Herbert, vice president of the chamber and a member of the county economic development commission. “It could be millions of dollars. But the reality is that the risk to drive that benefit is shouldered exclusively by the chamber and this is not right or fair. It would take a significant guarantee of risk mitigation for me to reconsider cancellation. This is a relatively small, underfunded chamber. The risk has to be more evenly distributed.”
Millard said that it is only a matter of time before there will be another rainy festival like 1995, and that a $150,000 loss is possible. That loss could occur any year this coming June, in fact and that simply would bankrupt the chamber, he said.
“The benefits flow to vendors,” said Betsy Burdett, who ran the “Going Green” initiative for the festival. Her job was to assemble dozens of volunteers to handle thousands of pounds of mixed waste, so she said she well knew the work side of the equation. “The chamber enables others to make money.”
“Some of the outrage over cancellation has come how can I say this? from those who derived benefits from the festival without much in the way of contribution,” Millard said. “The chamber is on the alternative side of the equation, bearing all the contribution without much benefit.”
The chamber, on a $300,000 budget, produced about a $12,000 profit in 2009, and that was a year with perfect weather and an uptick in attendance.
Festival public relations contractor Brenda Bradshaw said attendance was up in 2009 over 2008, In 2008, gas prices spiked to $4 just before the festival, she said, driving attendance lower.
“Thats part of the problem,” she said. “This past year (2009), the weather was perfect, everything was up and we still made less money.”
Millard said the financial risk goes beyond the festivals profits and losses. The chamber could get sued, for instance, if a volunteer were drinking, driving a golf cart and hit a child, he said. No liability policy will cover that.
Furthermore, Millard said, many of the key festival volunteers are tired. Their expertise is part of the formula which has won the Blue Ridge Barbecue brand a national reputation, he said, these people and all the “special touches” which represent budget line items.
In discussion around the room, which was set up with chairs against the wall in a circle, encounter-group style, lots of ideas were floated to solve the chambers financial risk and workload problems.
“We can look at the numbers,” said Peter Eisenbrown, who read a prepared statement (see page 18). “We can simply say we are willing to spend X amount and expect to see X return and figure out how to get there. This is something, to my knowledge, we have never done.”
Eisenbrown suggested that, for the festival to survive, the chamber would need to continue operating it this year, and then could “spin it off next year” to a newly formed non-profit.
Whatever is decided, Eisenbrown said if the festival has any chance, “a quick decision is needed.”
Eisenbrown suggested partnerships with local government, vendors and sponsors could help alleviate the financial and legal risks.
Chuck Britton volunteered to learn the operations management job from 16-year veteran Bill Crowell and relieve him.
“These guys are dead tired,” Britton said. “I am ready to get on and help.”
Carl Caudle suggested that “rain or shine” tickets be pre-sold for a reduced price, providing another source of sure cash against a rainy day loss.
The best signs of hope came from the county and the town.
“I have been county manager now three years,” Ryan Whitson said, “and I have never been asked to help, except to serve as a judge. We recognize the value of this to the county and we would like it to succeed.”
Tryon also weighed in.
“The Town of Tryon has a vested interest in making sure the festival continues and succeeds,” said town manager Justin Hembree. He asked for numbers he could provide to town council to see what it might be willing to do.
“I can tell you this,” said festival founder and national BBQ afficionado Jim Tabb, sweetening the pot, “If the festival continues, I will do all I can to see that it is one of the featured events on ‘BBQ Pitmasters,'” a TLC television series featuring his daughter.

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