To Moog or not to Moog

VALUE: Moogfest organizers are changing the event from a music festival to an economic development event and asking for $40,000 in city funds. Most of Asheville City Council agreed, but critics say the allocation isn’t fair. File photo by Max Cooper
VALUE: Moogfest organizers are changing the event from a music festival to an economic development event and asking for $40,000 in city funds. Most of Asheville City Council agreed, but critics say the allocation isn’t fair. File photo by Max Cooper

At its Feb. 11 meeting, Asheville City Council approved incentives valued at $90,000 for Moogfest and opened the door to a continuing partnership. But while proponents hailed the move as an important investment in the city's future growth, one Council member maintained that it's an unreasonable amount of taxpayer dollars to funnel to an event whose ticket prices start at $199.

The city will give the festival, slated for April 23-27, $40,000 plus another $50,000 worth of services (including police, fire and barricades). And if Moogfest delivers on some of its promised economic growth (including job creation and bringing tech companies to Asheville), the partnership could extend for another two years.

"Moogfest is in keeping with the current economic trend of selling a city on its people and its lifestyle," Jon Fillman of the city's Office of Economic Development said during his presentation to Council. The revamped Moogfest, he claimed, will create this growth through networking events, by connecting entrepreneurs with capital and by introducing tech industry representatives to Asheville.

"If it were just a music concert, I would not be here, but what we've done is use the Moog brand combined with an innovative daytime conference to re-create Moogfest as an economic development event," Moog President Mike Adams explained. The company says the festival will have a $30 million economic impact while attracting major media attention, though Adams expects Moog to lose money on it. “But I'm prepared to lose a significant amount so that those standing on the outside watching will realize that this is a really important initiative."

A partnership with local government, he claimed, would help the event succeed in generating the tech-driven economic growth that's one of City Council's main priorities.

Most Council members enthusiastically agreed, including Cecil Bothwell, who’s often been critical of economic incentives.

"There's nothing in the East that compares to [the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas], and this very reasonably could, in coming years," he said. "This is a really bright new idea as compared to Bele Chere, where we were spending $500,000 a year for a street festival that didn't really have any job component. This seems to me to be something worlds away from that, that will truly put us on the map for the future."

Council member Gwen Wisler, however, balked at the $40,000 cash payment, saying, “I'm supportive of the $50,000 in in-kind services, but I can't support the additional $40,000 to a festival that is not open to the public in all activities and is inconsistent with our other economic development funding.”

Ticket prices run as high as $499 for the five-day event, though some discounted tickets were offered to locals and free tickets were distributed to local educational institutions as “scholarships.” Some events, such as the job fair, will be free, noted Council member Gordon Smith. No member of the public commented on the measure before the vote.

In an email statement to her constituents, Wisler said it's "a matter of fairness" and that when incentives are granted to private businesses, they’re usually in the form of rebates of taxes already paid after a specified economic goal has been met. Giving Moogfest the money upfront, she asserted, isn't fair to other local organizations and events. In recent years, the city has generally limited in-kind support to a list of specific "anchor events" deemed to play a key role in Asheville.

"If Moogfest needs more upfront cash, it makes more sense to me for festival organizers to raise the money privately or by other means, such as the Chamber of Commerce or the Tourism Development Authority," wrote Wisler.

Council member Jan Davis countered that backing Moogfest is similar to other partnerships the city has pursued, such as with the Southern Conference basketball tournament.

The measure was approved 5-1, with Wisler dissenting. Vice Mayor Marc Hunt was absent.

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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