Yesterday's announcement that CenterFest would be taking a year off to refocus, regroup and retool its mission seemed to me to be a great step towards making North Carolina's longest-running street arts festival a signature draw for a revitalized downtown Durham.
We may get more details in a press conference today (BCR's Matthew Milliken will have coverage), but what's known from yesterday's press release and media coverage is that CenterFest's pause is intended to allow the festival to be expanded with a goal of making it what organizers at the Durham Arts Council are calling a "national caliber signature event for Durham."
And while a visioning process is needed, a range of possibilities is evident; "edible arts" (presumably focused on Durham's burgeoning and nationally-known food scene), local beers and wines, craft and art demonstrations, and "showcases" for technology, gaming and design are all possible.
So too could be higher-profile musical performing acts, including the possibility of major artists performing at the event.
It's a welcome change, and one that couldn't come at a better time.
The complaints about CenterFest in recent years have been pointed, focused in part on the banal, hot surface parking lot on Foster St. where the festival has moved in recent years. It provided a much-simpler logistical configuration for the DAC than was seen when the festival filled the inside-the-loop City Center district before, or took to the West Village area for a brief decampment during downtown streetscape work.
And while the quality of the artwork was high, the fried-food-from-a-booth options seemed more appropriate for the State Fair than as representative of Durham's legendary food fare.
The festival has always had a nice selection of artwork; Mrs. BCR and I have picked up a few items from there over the years and have enjoyed it. And back in the day when downtown Durham was a deserted place where CenterFest and the Durham Art Walks were some of the only signs of life, there wasn't much reason to change.
But the last couple of years, CenterFest to us has felt like a weirdly out-of-place event. If it's a Durham event, where were all the food trucks? The nascent breweries? Some of the local and funky businesses that have opened up downtown?
It didn't help that Durham lacked an overarching, compelling all-city festival to really help brand the town.
There was Taste of Durham for a few years in the mid-2000s, which provided a livelier set of events on paper -- including beer and wine tents, and food from local restaurants -- though the restaurant list at times veered to those of the suburban strip-mall variety, and the Taste of Durham, too, seemed to suffer when it moved from Brightleaf Square to the hot heart of asphalt Hades at the Imperial Center in south-southeastern "OK-almost-Morrisville" Durham County.
Taste of Durham's Twitter feed and web site suggest an attempt to reinvigorate that festival for fall 2011, but we'll wait to see what comes of that.
Frankly, the idea of incorporating food, creativity and other aspects of the Bull City that we're getting a national reputation for is really long overdue.
A great model would be the Bele Chere festival in Asheville, a weekend-long festival of the arts -- and music, and food, and so much more.
Bele Chere started in 1979 and was located on a whopping three blocks of downtown Asheville. It was the brainstorm of a handful of downtown Asheville merchants and business people with the vision of revitalizing our downtown business district, which was largely abandoned as retail businesses & residents moved to the outskirts. Now, downtown Asheville is home to restaurants, galleries, retail businesses, theatres, art exhibits, and a growing number of residents who call downtown "home."
Sounds pretty similar to CenterFest, no? An abandoned downtown district where artists could take root, either for a weekend or (as happened in the AVL) everyday in old Woolworth's and Kress drugstores and faded commercial buildings.
And like CenterFest, Bele Chere got its start in the 1970s, when interest in urban communities was at a national nadir.
Fast-forward to 2011, though, and Bele Chere is drawing between 300,000 and 350,000 people to its annual festival.
CenterFest? Try 20,000 people a year in recent memory, the Herald-Sun notes.
And no, we didn't drop a zero there.
Bele Chere attracts more than fifteen times the attendees as Centerfest does. What's the difference?
Musical acts: Headliners at Bele Chere this year include Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Marc Broussard, The Whigs, Railroad Earth and more. Many of these are bands that can draw crowds at venues like Cat's Cradle or DC's 9:30 Club -- a far cry from the local, but unknown, acts that have headlined CenterFest in the past.
Food: Bele Chere offers two different "food courts." One, in Pritchard Park, sounds like the kind of State Fair foods CenterFest is known for (down to a vendor named -- we are not making this up -- "Hillbilly Funnel Cakes." On the other hand, there's also a "Taste of Asheville" food court that's subject to the following caveats:
Taste of Asheville offers local restaurants the opportunity to sell food and beverages to over 300,000 festival attendees. All restaurants located within the city limits of Asheville are eligible to participate. Priority is given to applicants on a first come, first serve basis and to non-chain restaurants.
Supporting local restaurants? Priority to non-franchise outlets? Sounds delicious, and very Durham, and much overdue.
Beer: Beverage stations and "satellite locations" provide beer all weekend to those with wristbands -- and given Asheville's rep for local breweries, we're presuming people are drinking as locally as they're eating. (And a percentage of sales are given to local non-profits -- one of the rare ways of making it, perhaps, socially conscious to tie one on.)
No surprise, then, that Bele Chere is "the largest free street music and arts festival in the southeast."
CenterFest's re-envisioning is a chance to aim at a similar target on the dartboard. And hey, if we're looking for an example, what better place to look than four hours east on a late July weekend?) (Bele Chere 2011 is July 29-31 in downtown Asheville.)
Here's to DAC for listening to the community and taking this on. And here's to the local community -- government, prospective sponsors, volunteers, residents, local businesses -- to recommitting itself to making CenterFest just as great.