After the most recent edition of the Asheville Holiday Parade, the future of the popular, long-running display of seasonal spirit seemed in doubt. But the 61-year-old annual event may gain a new sponsor and new life in 2008.
The current primary sponsor, the Asheville Merchants Corp., is negotiating with the Asheville Downtown Association to hand off the event, according to ADA board member Dwight Butner and Merchants Corp. attorney W. Louis Bissette Jr. Corporation President Tom Hallmark was on vacation and unavailable for comment.
At press time, the two groups were scheduled to meet Jan. 16 to hammer out a possible agreement, said Butner, noting that his organization already has extensive experience managing events such as Downtown After Five.
“I don’t want to overstate it or understate it, but we think [the parade] fits in very well with our long-term goals for downtown Asheville and … with our mission. But the devil’s always in the details,” he said, referring to the challenge of working out the financial aspects of a deal.
“There is very strong sentiment on the board to do this,” added Butner. “We feel like downtown has a better relationship with Austin, Texas, than it does with Arden, N.C. For us to be involved in the parade, which is still very connected to the local communities and surrounding counties, really fits in with our desire to reach out [locally] and get people engaged with what’s going on downtown.”
Fits and starts
Bissette said the Merchants Corp. is merely a shell of its former self, with a small board and a skeleton staff. During the 61 years it has sponsored the parade, he said, the group had sold off many assets, including a credit bureau, plowing the proceeds into the Asheville Merchants Corporation Foundation. Because the group now primarily awards grants to local nonprofits, it no longer makes sense for it to sponsor the parade, he said.
The Merchants Corp. first approached the city about taking over the parade at least 18 months ago, said Bissette, a former Asheville mayor. The formal request finally came before City Council at its Nov. 27, 2007, meeting, but it was tabled after several Council members questioned the ramifications of the city’s assuming full control. Brownie Newman, for one, was generally supportive but asked the corporation to try to find a private sponsor before looking to the city to take over the parade.
A few weeks later, the corporation formally withdrew its request (and an accompanying offer to pay the city $80,000 over four years to offset costs). That decision was precipitated by the lively debate during the November Council meeting over the parade’s evolution from a traditional Christmas parade to a more inclusive “holiday” parade in the 1990s.
Council member Jan Davis cited complaints he’d heard from constituents about seminudity and profanity in the parade, while Council member Carl Mumpower drew the wrath of Council member Robin Cape—and especially Hallmark—when he said the parade had become a “corruption” of Christmas and of Christianity in general.
In addition to religion, Council members also fretted about having to regulate the content of entries, which City Attorney Bob Oast warned could mire Asheville in thorny constitutional issues and leave the city vulnerable to lawsuits.
Nonetheless, at its Jan. 8 meeting, City Council unanimously voted to continue providing about $20,000 worth of logistical support annually. That support comes in the form of staffing and services by the city’s Parks and Recreation, Building Safety, Parking Services, Police, Fire and Public Works departments, Parks & Rec Director Roderick Simmons explained in a memo to Council.
Despite their qualms, Council members said later they were pleased that the parade would probably survive, though Mumpower stuck to his ideological guns.
“In that I believe government has no business being in the parade business, I’m delighted that the private sector is stepping up to keep the tradition alive,” Mumpower wrote in a Jan. 11 e-mail to Xpress. “While they are at it, I hope we get back to calling the event a Christmas Parade. Other faiths and perspectives are free to organize their own parade and call it what they like. … The Christian majority of WNC should be supported in their spiritual liberties like any other faith.”
For his part, Butner said that unlike some Council members, he personally has no problem with the parade’s evolution as an inclusive event, adding that he doesn’t believe many on the Downtown Association board do either.
“We don’t want to get into a bunch of pettiness,” he said. “We want this to be a celebration of the holiday season, and I don’t give a teetotal happy damn whether it’s called the Christmas parade, the Hanukkah parade, or the multicultural, cross-religious, semidemoninational-whatever parade.”