Asheville City Council

Bele Chere, Asheville’s annual July blowout, inspires a wide range of emotions in city residents—everything from pure love to sheer hate to major ambivalence. That goes double for people who live or work downtown: Some leave town to avoid it; others circle the dates on their calendars to make sure they don’t miss out. But even folks who say they don’t like the big bash often turn up downtown at some point during that weekend to catch a favorite band, wolf down some street eats or simply engage in the time-honored sport of people-watching.

In any case, one thing seems clear: Since its inception in 1979, the free, three-day festival, which draws more than 300,000 people each year, has become a city tradition. And on the whole, the 80 or so folks who gathered at the city’s invitation last week to give feedback indicated that they want the festival to continue, albeit with some tweaks.

Instead of its customary Tuesday-night meeting, City Council convened a Jan. 30 public forum on Bele Chere’s future. Divided into small groups, the residents and businesspeople assembled at the Civic Center were presented with two questions: What would you do to change or improve Bele Chere? and What do you value most about the festival? Each group was given 45 minutes to brainstorm, agree on its top three answers to both questions, and report back.

Mayor Terry Bellamy, who’d recently questioned whether Bele Chere should be changed or perhaps even eliminated, asked the crowd for complete honesty. “Is this the best festival we can have, or is it no longer needed?” she wondered, adding, “We need to hear from you, because this is the community’s festival.”

What followed were earnest and sometimes lively exchanges of ideas—many of them quite similar from group to group.

What to change? For starters, said downtown-restaurant owner Dwight Butner, Bele Chere should be moved to some other month. July, he noted, is already one of the city’s top months for tourism. Move the festival to September or some other month when business is typically slower and the influx of people could really do some economic good, he argued. “People don’t see it helping their business,” said Butner, who also serves as president of the Asheville Downtown Association. A 2005 economic-impact study conducted for the city by Western Carolina University found that Bele Chere contributes $12.4 million in direct spending in Asheville and the surrounding area.

Across the way, another man echoed Butner, saying that having Bele Chere in July amounts to overkill. “It’s kind of like bringing an extra dish to Thanksgiving dinner,” he observed.

This Bud’s for you

Another hot-button issue was beer. Because Budweiser is a major corporate sponsor, the region’s distinctive craft brews are virtually shut out of the festival. Besides doing a disservice to those who don’t like Bud and other Anheuser-Busch beers, this also misses a chance to promote the local economy and detracts from the event’s local flavor, several people opined.

Many also groused about the need for more local vendors and sponsors, though a city Parks and Recreation Department handout noted that 56 downtown businesses and 19 local restaurants had booths at last year’s festival, and 36 local businesses were sponsors.

Music proved to be yet another touchy issue. Each year, some people complain about the quality of the headliners, and the festival’s decision two years ago to charge admission for concerts that had previously been free has sparked mixed reactions. Although Bele Chere has featured a relatively broad sampling of local and regional music acts in recent years, some maintained that more local involvement is needed in choosing headliners. A volunteer committee made up of area residents involved in the music industry already selects all the other entertainment.

It’s a keeper

Once the participants had reassembled in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium to unveil their answers on flip-chart sheets, it soon became apparent that no one was proposing getting rid of Bele Chere. “So it looks like it’s a keeper,” Bellamy announced to applause.

As for the positives, the groups emphasized the festival’s diverse offerings of music, food and other mainstays; the tradition; the positive economic impact; and the fact that Bele Chere has helped put Asheville on the map. After a speaker from each group went over its answers, the most popular ideas for improving the event emerged:

1. Consider hosting a few additional, smaller festivals—perhaps devoted to things like food, art, music—that would be more representative of Asheville.

2. Move Bele Chere to another time of year.

3. Give residents more input in the choice of music and other features, and return the festival to its roots. While Bele Chere has succeeded in boosting the local economy, forum participants said it now places less emphasis on spotlighting Asheville’s unique culture and diversity.

4. Retain alcohol-free zones but allow small “beer gardens” on Sunday, currently a no-alcohol day.

5. Improve the layout and logistics to ease congestion, parking and transportation problems and more successfully integrate the Eagle/Market streets area, Lexington Avenue and the Grove Arcade.

6. Return to a completely free festival with no ticketed events.

The Bele Chere board will consider those and the other top ideas at its Feb. 10 retreat. Sometime in February, the board will present its plan for the festival’s future to City Council for a vote. In the meantime, residents who missed the forum have until Friday, Feb. 9, to e-mail their input and ideas to city Public Information Officer Lauren Bradley at lbradley@ashevillenc.gov.

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