The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority approved a $100,000 contribution toward next year’s Chow Chow culinary festival at the board’s Oct. 30 meeting. The money represents a $25,000 increase over the BCTDA’s support for the event’s debut this September.
“For the first year, the challenges are so significant in generating attendance because you don’t have any photography [and] nobody really understands the quality of the event,” said Stephanie Brown, president and CEO of the Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I think the event has an extraordinarily strong foundation moving forward and I think [when] we’ll look back [in] 10-15 years, we’ll have an event that’s even more successful.”
Chow Chow: An Asheville Culinary Festival took place Sept.12-15 and featured a mix of chef demonstrations, food and beverage tastings, hands-on activities and panel discussions. According to a presentation by Katie Button, the chef and owner of Cúrate and president of the Chow Chow board of directors, and Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani Restaurant Group, roughly 3,200 people attended the festival’s inaugural weekend, 66% of whom were from the local community.
Button and Irani reported that the first-year festival stimulated almost $2 million in total business spending and $135,952 in local taxes. Chow Chow also resulted in national media coverage with a value of $1.3 million, along with 2.8 million social media impressions. The event boosted overnight stays in the area by 1,600 rooms. The not-for-profit festival also raised $53,000 for MANNA FoodBank.
“It was, if you could imagine, such a challenge to get this kind of impact from a festival that had never been done before, and you see the results from that,” Irani said. “Can you imagine what the impact will be next September?”
Button added that planning is underway for Chow Chow’s second year, which has a projected budget of $700,000. The event is tentatively scheduled for Thursday-Sunday, Sept. 10-13, with final dates to be confirmed in November.
Last year, the BCTDA contributed $75,000 to Chow Chow through its event development incubator fund. The event remains the only festival to be supported through that source rather than the agency’s Festival and Cultural Events grant program, which helps fund events such as Downtown After 5 and LEAF Downtown AVL and has a total budget of $85,000 for the current fiscal year. Both funding sources are derived from earned income from paid advertising on Explore Asheville’s website, not the nearly $23 million occupancy tax budget.
During the meeting, Brown suggested increasing the contribution for Chow Chow to $100,000. She pointed to approximately $150,000 in earned income, carried over from the previous fiscal year but not included in the authority’s current budgeted spending, that could cover its support for the festival. The unanticipated surplus of funds, she said, was the result of a transition to a new accounting system.
“We had some undesignated money that’s been commingled. We’ve been working with [BCTDA financial officer] Don [Warn] to get a better appreciation of the difference between our operation surplus and our undesignated surplus,” Brown said. “We have the capacity right now, outside of the existing approved budget, of $150,000.”
BCTDA board member Andrew Celwyn raised concern over that revelation, claiming that he did not have a thorough understanding of the mistake that led to the surplus. He also said that, while he supported funding the festival, he wanted to investigate where the money came from.
“I’m probably not comfortable voting to spend any of that money until I understand a little bit more where that was coming from and what bookkeeping errors or omissions [there] were that kept us from understanding that we had that money to spend in the first place,” Celwyn said. “My apologies to the folks at Chow Chow, who did an awesome job. I don’t want to hold them up at all, but I feel like, if it’s extra money that we’re allocating, I don’t feel comfortable with that right now.”
Brown pushed back on the assertion that the accounting process lacked transparency and encouraged BCTDA board members to review the latest financial reports for clarification. The board subsequently approved the motion, with Celwyn dissenting.