Asheville City Council: To Moog or not to Moog

Asheville City Council passed $90,000 in incentives for Moogfest this evening, both in cash and services, with the possibility of a partnership continuing for years. However, while its proponents touted it as an important investment in the city’s future growth, one Council member asserted that it’s an unreasonable amount of taxpayer dollars to go to an event not entirely open to the public.

The city will provide $50,000 in services (including police, fire and barricades) and $40,000 in funds for the April festival. If Moogfest delivers on some of its economic growth (including the creation jobs and bringing tech companies to the city), 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 Economic Development office said during his presentation to Council. The revamped Moogfest, he claimed, will create this growth through networking events, connecting entrepreneurs and capital and 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 recreate Moogfest as an economic development event,” Moog President Mike Adams said. While the company is projecting $30 million in economic impact from the festival and attention from major media, Adams anticipates that the festival will lose money for the company, “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 claims, will help the event succeed despite its financial losses and draw in the tech-driven economic growth that’s one of Council’s main priorities.

Most of Council agreed, even enthusiastically. Council member Cecil Bothwell, often critical of economic incentives, said that in this case Moogfest promises to be a big potential boon for the city, like the SXSW festival is for Austin, Texas.

“There’s nothing in the east that compares to [SXSW] and this very reasonably could, in coming years,” Bothwell 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.”

Most of the other Council members gave similarly supportive endorsements.

However, Council member Gwen Wisler opposed the $40,000 for Moogfest.

“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,” she said.

Tickets for Moogfest range from $199 to $299, though some discounted tickets were offered to locals and free tickets distributed as “scholarships” to local educational institutions. The job fair and some events will be open to the public, as Council member Gordon Smith pointed out in responding to Wisler. No members of the public commented on the measure before the vote.

In a lengthier email statement to constituents about the reasoning for her opposition, Wisler asserted that it’s a “matter of fairness” and that incentives, when they’re granted to for-profit companies, are usually rebates on taxes after a given economic goal has been met. Giving the money to Moogfest upfront, she asserts, isn’t fair to other organizations and events that have gone through the more traditional routes. 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 up-front 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 and Development Authority,” Wisler wrote.

Council member Jan Davis countered that he believed the Moogfest backing is similar enough to other partnerships the city has pursued, such as its deals with the SoCon basketball tournament.

The measure passed 5-1, with Wisler dissenting. Vice Mayor Marc Hunt was absent from the meeting.

In other business, Council:

• Delayed the 192-unit Avalon housing development in South Asheville until Feb. 25. The Avalon has attracted some controversy because the developers are seeking to build it on land previously designated for industrial business.

• Approved 6-0 a waste management goal to reduce Asheville’s solid waste by 50 percent over the next 20 years. As part of the goal, the city will investigate measures such as curbside composting and a “pay as you throw” system to reduce fees for households with less garbage.

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