Eat, drink and be bullish: Downtown food scene expansion continues
Bigger and better? Expanded CenterFest to feature broader spectrum of attractions, powered by wide-ranging gamut of ambitions

What would it take to make a revitalized CenterFest great?

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.

As the Bele Chere web site notes:

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.



My fondest memories of Centerfest involve walking around downtown streets and not knowing what was around the corner. I agree that the move to the parking lot zapped it of a lot of energy. I'm happy to make a monetary contribution but in recent years it felt like the perimeter was jammed with people seeking donations for you to enter. I also didn't like that my in-laws were not allowed to bring their dog. I was recently at Artsplosure in Raleigh and dogs were welcome there.


As a resident of Downtown Durham who was born here, I, too, am happy beyond words to think that the real Centerfest that I knew from when it first started, that my children knew and that my grandchildren have never known, is likely to make a comeback but in even a greater way. I attempted to support the paved parking lot for a couple of years with my grandchildren but even they didn't enjoy it...So, hurray for DAC's vision....I have loved downtown Durham my whole life even when it was sleeping for so many years past...The Bull City continues to be on the RISE and I am confident that we can match Asheville if not pass it...Now, let's also just get the Blues Festival back to an outside venue and make it a festival again with children running all around and great music rather than a concert in our beautiful DPAC that, though fabulous, just doesn't serve the purpose of the Bull City Blues Festival. Anyway, thanks DAC for what you are doing on CenterFest.


Just my opinion, but for starters maybe a name change? 'Centerfest' always struck me as generic, uninspired, and just...blah. I can't claim to have a better suggestion, but while they're regrouping and tooling, how about renaming?


Agree to name change, need some a little more catchy. As to other ideas, since Durham is becoming such a foodie town, why not do competitions between area chefs/food trucks/etc? Get more/better musical acts to perform.

john haws

There seemed to be a sincere focus on having cool artistic kids' activities, but there is much room for improvement. Get rid of the bouncy-house variety that lined the perimeter of the parking lot in years past, and improve the interior activities, focusing on well-organized and well-staffed make-and-take stuff, along with welcoming and engaging performances for kids.

And to balance it out, I also fully endorse encouraging the food trucks and breweries. If they could figure out a way to give the more interesting local food purveyors preference, that would be cool (although I do love me a corndog), but it's not clear how you'd differentiate between the state fair type vendor and one of our "hipper" food trucks.

@GGPR (at the risk of starting a flame war), personally I prefer that people leave their dogs at home for centerfest. I don't think it's a great idea for people to bring their dogs to a crowded venue with lots of kids and food.


Why not give the food trucks the street in front DAC, give the street vendor types the parking lot behind the bank, and the keep all the new restaurants open...then everybody can chose what they want...nothing wrong with a good corn dog or roasted ear of corn...street festivals and street food vendors just seem to go hand-in-hand somehow....ummmmmm, I can smell the sausages now!


Yes... horrible name, poorly thought out venue changes, unclear vision. It seems to flounder for lack of "local authenticity". Time for a reboot.

The discussion however begs the larger question: as the fabric of our community interactions change through the rise of social media, flash mobs, croudfunded startups, and... yarn bombing - perhaps it's time to look beyond typical corporate and organizational sources to craft our local culture. Perhaps rather than a top-down, seal-of-approval, paint-within-the-lines approach, we need something more flexible. Is aiming for a half million attendees even a worthy and/or necessary goal?


I think Aaron might be onto something. To my way of thinking, some of the most compelling Durham events lately have been what I describe as "another excuse to go downtown and act up a bit": Marry Durham, the Mardi Gras parade, Zombie Lurch, Tour de Fat, Beaver Queen Pageant (ok, Duke Park is not downtown, but might as well be on that day), any time the Scene of the Crime Rovers play...

Maybe the folks at DAC who are rethinking CenterFest could try to work some of that spontaneity and movement into a street art show. Instead of just *displaying* arts and crafts in the streets, let's *make* arts and crafts in the streets!


I think CenterFest has been too focused on arts and crafts. Much more interesting and useful would be Durham's version of the old expositions, an event that showcases local businesses, especially those that make innovative or experimental products. The point would be to show a much wider range of what people are doing in Durham and give people an opportunity to find out what the heck Company XYZ in American Tobacco does. Location will always be a problem. The great outdoors is not a conference center. Some kind of paved area with shelter (see the Farmers' Market) would be best.


Toby, keep in mind one of the main goals behind a craft/art fair is to give the full-time craftspersons/artisans in our state/region a way -- hopefully a pleasurable one for all -- to showcase their works directly to the public.

The majority of the stuff people buy in the world nowadays is not handmade, nor is it even made anywhere nearby.

The point of these fairs is to remind people "Hey! there are folks who make stuff these days if you want to have handmade things as part of your life. come meet them and see their work."

I think it's great that centerfest may expand/re think itself to create a more enjoyable, and more Durhamesque environs and a better experience, but its important to remember the central mission of this kind of event is to create a way for the public to see (and consider purchasing) excellent work made by craftspersons who are there with their work.

There are less and less people making things for a living, and it is probably good to remember that for a moment. Becoming well versed in one's craft takes a long time and there are few and far venues to see that supported.

Michael Bacon

I'm extremely happy about this news. I used to love CenterFest, and got a fair bit of blowback a few years ago when I grumbled about the new change on the ABCD list while the festival was still going. It was obviously dying in its current form, so I give all praise to the DAC for taking a year off to give it a full reboot instead of just limping along.

If I were organizing it, I'd focus on three or four things that this town should be able to do very well. First, the core of CenterFest has always been a high quality juried art competition, and it should stay that way. In fact, that was something that was always hard for a casual visitor to pick up on amid the tents and vendors -- I'd love to see that played up more. Second, as Kevin has obviously already nailed, is the food and drink aspect. I don't think you need to focus exclusively on the chef and food truck aspect even -- the theme of locally raised food runs so deeply through our food and beer scene, I'd like to see the food and drink section include the producers. Third, the embarrassment of riches we have for local musical talent ought to be on show, with better venues than the stage on the lot the way its been the last year or so. Give them a quality PA and a decent audience area instead of just making the performers glorified background music.

If you think the organization has the energy to do a fourth thing, do film. The Carolina is really coming into its own as a budding cinema mecca, so use that. Have a short films competition and a themed, curated festival-like series of 35mm prints. Let these go into the evening -- there's no reason to kill the fun at 6 PM, particularly on warm autumn evenings.

Will Wilson

Make downtown a destination, then every day is CenterFest day!


Footnote to the post I made this morning where I mentioned the long-standing Blues Festival and wishing it could be back to an outside venue. This afternoon a friend sent me an email notification from Hayti Heritage Center that the 24th Annual Bull Durham Blues Festival will be held on September 10, 2011 at Durham Central Park from 6 p.m. to midnight. Free to everybody.

Great news...Please visit the Hayti Heritage Center's website for all of the details. The gods must have been listening.

Mark Critzer

Bring the Taste of Durham back to downtown, instead of the Imperial Center, and possibly make it part of the new Centerfest. That should include local food producers along with our many restaurants and food trucks. Maybe get both sides of the food spectrum together for once.

Not to take away from our other festivals, having something else to do, like some special film screenings, local baseball games at the old DBAP, etc., instead of just fast food, arts&crafts, and inflatables for the kids.


Has there been a festival to use the entire stretch of Corcoran/Blackwell/Foster corridor?

I remember during the streetscape discussions...there was talk of creating an entertainment corridor along this spine. Well...we have the infrastructure in place along the entire stretch w/ accompanying restaurants, bars, venues, plazas, open fields, etc. We have the Express Bus to shuttle people from satellite parking sites from Golden Belt to Brightleaf.

It will be interesting to see what an expanded downtown-anchored festival will look like...

Doug Roach

So the big change includes a name change to, 'CENTERFEST ,blah, blah, blah... "?

Is the name Durham not to be noted here? CENTERFEST? I mean, really?
Congrats on everyones memories of a great CenterfestPast. I'm certain they were great But there is a viable and available community that would identify with such a festival should it incorporate a legitimate name that at least identifies A PLACE!!

Marketing starts with an identity.

Will Wilson

Durham has a wonderful Farmers Market/CenterFest/EarthDay/EnoFestival culture based on "events", and IMHO we should leverage that culture to build a permanent market along that Foster Street area. Just look at that Fullsteam area that popped up in a very short time. I've been to a few small and large European (and US/Canada) cities where the market culture supplies veggies, baked goods, cheeses, meats -- everything -- on a daily basis to downtown residents. That infrastructure also supports a bike/ped/bus culture. Durham's come to that point, and we need a relaxation of "zoning" hurdles and, perhaps, initial funding from city/county to set it up. Does the city/county own some of those properties we could turn into "strip markets"? Talk about jobsjobsjobs!


@Doug - Bele Chere - doesn't really say Asheville...after googling it roughly means "Good Life".

I would go with the overarching brand "Centerfest" with sub-brands around different stations. iContact Backyard Jam @ CenterFest Central Park...WRAL Family Artsplosion @ CenterFest DBAP...Mechanics & Farmers CityBlues @ CenterFest CCB Plaza.

You get the idea. I used very rough names to give you the intent of each site/venue and possible sub-branding opportunities. Sponsored names optional of course...



But "Good Life" -- and even the linguistic sound of "Bele Chere" -- hints at an emotion: celebrating life, good cheer, bright colors. Centerfest emotes nothing.

Center: nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary. Accommodating. Central Prison. Center for Academic Acronyms. Centerpiece: a static, lifeless object to stare at.

I agree with the other commenters that it's time for a clean slate. We'd never look back.


I'll ditto what Michael said "Third, the embarrassment of riches we have for local musical talent ought to be on show, with better venues than the stage on the lot the way its been the last year or so." There is a lot of talent in the Bull City, both untapped and recognized - if they are to create something intrinsically Durham, it is important to showcase local artists and not abandon them for "headliners" from elsewhere - we've got some headliners here, if you look around.


just remember: all this great talent, national or local, will expect to be paid. where's all the money coming from? centerfest moved and scaled down b/c of cost. i hope everyone with all these ideas will open up their checkbooks (or volunteer to find donors).

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