LEAF Downtown enters its second year

NATURAL, EVOLUTIONARY GROWTH: Building on the success of last year's event, the 2016 LEAF Downtown festival boasts a larger footprint, more family activities and an open invitation to African-Americans, Latinos and members of the Ukrainian community, among others. Photo by Steve Atkins

The LEAF Downtown festival, like its sibling — the biannual LEAF in nearby Black Mountain — highlights the rich tapestry of many cultures. But unlike the larger event, LEAF Downtown, which returns on Saturday and Sunday, July 30 and 31, is focused on a local audience. And it’s free.

LEAF organizers apply their skills and experience to the two-day festival, held in Pack Square Park. “For the festival out in Black Mountain, we have our own land,” says Ehren Cruz, performing arts director. “Downtown, we create the same level of integrity of an event, but in a far, far tighter amount of time.”

Cruz notes that LEAF Downtown is “heavily dependent upon collaboration with city, program and sponsor partners. Last year’s event was really a wonderful experience teaching us how to activate a fully well-rooted festival experience. We did it, while keeping the quality intact.”

The LEAF staff has ambitious plans to build upon the success of LEAF Downtown’s inaugural year. “Our largest goal with the downtown festival is to provide a creative experience that [is accessible to] people of all walks of life,” Cruz says. The goal is to make specific groups — Cruz mentions African-Americans, Latinos and those in the Ukrainian community — “not only feel invited, but know that they have a home” at LEAF Downtown. The event will host about a dozen nonprofit organizations, including Block by Block Industries and Nuestro Centro. Cruz says that the idea is that people “feel like — and are — collaborators in the event.”

With those goals come challenges, Cruz admits. For most festivals, ticket sales are a major revenue stream. But for a free event like LEAF Downtown, strong sponsorship is important. “It’s also [dependent on] concessions doing really well,” he says. “That is the sustainability model that we’re looking at.”

The event’s focus on local communities is central to that approach. More than 80 percent of the vendors are from Asheville or Western North Carolina. Cruz stresses that LEAF Downtown is very different from Bele Chere, which ran from 1979 to 2013. That festival “took on more of a tourist perspective: bringing people in, creating a massive experience,” Cruz explains. “What we’re hoping to do is evolve grassroots-style with Asheville on our side, making sure that [local people] know this is a celebration for them as well as a welcoming experience for people coming from out of state.”

This year’s festival’s footprint will extend to encompass Spruce Street, an area that Cruz says will host “interactive installations, and lots of activities for families and kids.”

Music is at the heart of the festivities. This year’s theme is “Soultown,” emphasized by War (the California-based funk band known for hits like “Spill the Wine” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” regional acts like the eastern North Carolina jazz group Bill Myers & the Monitors and Atlanta blues outfit AJ Ghent Band, and local groups such as African, Caribbean and South American-influenced collective Les Amis. Other acts on the bill include rockers The Broadcast, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, kid-hop artist Secret Agent 23 Skidoo and a host of others. Ryan Reardon of Les Amis notes that through its events, LEAF Community Arts “has done so much throughout the years for the Asheville-area music scene, and I always look forward to discovering new music at every festival.”

Attendees do have the option of purchasing VIP tickets for an enhanced experience that includes “access to air-conditioned space, clean bathrooms and drink voucher tickets,” Cruz says. “Again, it’s a free festival, but this is one of the ways we offer a little bit more and help our sustainability by giving people a unique experience.” The LEAF pre-party featuring electronic collective Papadosio, held Friday, July 29, at New Mountain, offers another chance to support local cultural arts education through LEAF Schools & Streets programs.

Last year’s event was successful on most every level. While the beer sales goal was set at $25,000, the final tally was close to $70,000. “Beyond the numbers, to have a safe and peaceful event is really special,” Cruz says. The 2015 festival drew 15,000 people downtown. That number is a good goal for 2016, says Cruz, “but if we can stretch all the way to Vance Monument when War plays ‘Low Rider,’ that’ll be pretty incredible!”

He adds, “We’re taking the formula that we had last year and ramping it up. We’re aiming for a natural, evolutionary growth. From a core mission perspective, we’ve made LEAF Downtown about showcasing the very best of what Asheville has to offer. Give us sunshine out there, and we’ll give you an incredible show.”

WHAT: LEAF Downtown Festival
WHERE: Pack Square Park
WHEN: July 30-31. Free. Full details at theleaf.org/downtown

WHAT: LEAF Downtown pre-party with Papadosio and Push/Pull Strikes Brass
WHERE: New Mountain, 38 S. French Broad Ave., newmountainavl.com
WHEN: Friday, July 29, 6:30 p.m. $20 advance/$25 day of show



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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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One thought on “LEAF Downtown enters its second year

  1. The band pictured in the LEAF Downtown photo is Asheville Second Line, a community band associated with Asheville Mardi Gras. (L) Roberto Rivera, (c) LoisJolly ,(r) Bill Boughton.

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