Asheville’s Folk Art Center faces an uncertain future due to a change in the Southern Highland Craft Guild’s operating agreement with the National Park Service.
Located at milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the multipurpose facility includes galleries, a craft store, a library and more. The guild built the popular tourist destination in 1980 under an agreement that allowed the nonprofit to operate the center on Park Service land without paying a fee. In exchange, the guild paid all construction and maintenance costs while providing a place where Parkway visitors could learn about the region’s culture through interpretive exhibits, workshops and educational demonstrations.
Since 1998, however, the Park Service has been gradually implementing a federal law requiring all holders of national park concessions to pay fees to the federal agency. And as of Feb. 1, the guild must hand over 2 percent of its revenue from craft sales at the center. Furthermore, when the current two-year contract ends in 2013, the Park Service could decide to lease the facility to a different group. If that happened, the nonprofit wouldn’t be reimbursed for its investment in the center to date.
"A prospectus will be developed and advertised, and bids will be received," Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis explains. "It's competitive. I don't know who might want to compete when this contract expires. … The winning bidder will, in all likelihood, get a 10-year contract."
But that doesn't sit well with Lila Bellando, president of the guild’s board of trustees.
"They say they want us there, but we're looking around. We would like to be independent of the Park Service at some point in the future," she reveals. "We will hope to stay there as long as we can. But we're 81 years old, and we want to be around for a couple hundred more years. So we have to think about what we can do to ensure our future."
Hard times, hard choices
Chartered in 1930, the Southern Highland Craft Guild now represents almost 1,000 artisans in nine states.
The group traces its roots back to 1897, when Presbyterian missionary Frances Goodrich founded Allanstand Cottage Industries in Madison County. In 1908, she moved the shop to downtown Asheville, where it remained until relocating to the Folk Art Center. Growing out of Goodrich's efforts, the guild now focuses on education, commerce and preserving traditions.
Allanstand, the longest continuously operating craft shop in the country, features the work of more than 200 guild members in clay, wood, glass, metal, fiber and other materials. The group operates four other craft stores in North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky, and it holds annual summer and fall craft shows at the Asheville Civic Center.
"We're helping support many, many small businesses," giving the region a major economic boost, Executive Director Tom Bailey explains. "If we're successful, then these small businesses will be successful."
The 2-percent charge on purchases at Allanstand forced the guild to make some difficult choices, including raising membership dues from $50 to $75, says Bailey. And though he’s unhappy that the group must "pay rent on a facility that it paid for and built," he's quick to add, "If we do have to pay something, the 2-percent number is fair."
Meanwhile, sales at the shop have been hit hard by the economy, dropping 24 percent between 2007 and 2010. "We've had to let staff go, had to reduce expenses, and some of the programs we do for the visitors had to be scaled back," notes Bailey.
The hard times, combined with the Park Service's own budget woes, could affect who gets the contract two years from now, Bellando says.
"They’re looking for money, because they’re having a tough time financially," she observes. "If they're only looking for money, who knows at what point we wouldn’t get the contract? … So that always puts us in a [vulnerable] position."
Francis, however, dismisses those concerns, noting that the franchise fees are kept separate from the agency's operating budget.
"There's a range of considerations other than money," he maintains. "The criteria seem very reasonable and fair, not prejudiced or biased in any way. It gives people an open and honest chance to compete for the business."
A cultural treasure
Meanwhile, the guild is exploring other possibilities.
Bellando and other board members recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to ask that the group be allowed to continue operating the Folk Art Center under the previous cooperative agreement. With the support of Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. Heath Shuler, Bellando says they "met with the top guns at the National Park Service, and we think they really listened to us." But in the end, the officials said their hands were tied by federal law, Bellando reports.
Now, however, the guild is shifting its focus, lobbying those elected representatives to “introduce legislation that would establish us as some sort of significant cultural treasure," she explains. A 99-year agreement allowing the guild to operate the Folk Art Center would be better than buying its own property and starting from scratch, she asserts.
Meanwhile, the group’s plans to renovate the Folk Art Center have been put on hold. "We had great plans to expand the Folk Art Center and [display] our private collection of artifacts," notes Bellando. "It's maybe the best collection of Southern regional crafts in the whole U.S. But we need a place to store it: We're running out of space."
The group's longtime hometown is also in question. "We would really like to be in the Asheville area," says Bellando. "But if we found a great location somewhere that's easy to get to, that has lots of potential for traffic in an arts-minded community … we will consider all options."
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at email@example.com.