With land purchase, Shakori Hills turns from festival to institution

akenney@newsobserver.comDecember 16, 2013 

— The Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance, once an upstart event in the woods of Chatham County, is becoming a permanent presence. The nonprofit festival has purchased its 73-acre site and plans eventually to create a “community arts center,” its organizers announced Monday.

Shakori began more than a decade ago as an offshoot of an upstate New York music festival. In recent years, the festival and related events have made for most of the activity on the former farm – but the organizers didn’t own the land itself until now.

“The goal all along was to get the festival big enough so that it could afford a mortgage, basically,” said Jordan Puryear, an organizer of the festival.

The festival had long leased land for the event from two “angel investors” who bought and held the property during the 12 years of Shakori Hills. This year, an infusion of about $700,000 in donations and “community financing” made the festival’s purchase possible.

With last week’s inking of the deal, and the recent formation of the Shakori Hills Community Arts Center nonprofit organization, more plans for the rural land have formed.

First might be a permanent dancing pavilion. Later, an upgrade to the old farmhouse could boost the organization itself. And the land might eventually become something like a privately owned park, with walking trails and a community garden open to the public.

The festival likely will celebrate its purchase at the next of its bi-annual GrassRoots events, which typically draw about 8,000 people and 60 bands.

To fund the purchase, the festival first raised $75,000 in donations for a down payment to the previous owner, listed in property records as Anne Winfield. The group then turned to Carol Peppe Hewitt, a Chatham County resident who has recently helped dozens of food-related businesses raise money from mostly local investors.

Within weeks, she pulled together 27 investors and about $630,000 for the rest of the purchase and attorneys’ fees. The group didn’t pursue a traditional bank loan, she said.

“The interest raised in traditional lending leaves the community and is spent on we-don’t-know-what, whereas if you’re giving it back to people who care for your festival, there’s more likely to be parallels in your interests,” Hewitt said.

To pay back the local investors, Puryear said, Shakori Hills will have to maintain attendance growth of about 10 percent annually; the crowd has grown by 10 to 15 percent since the festival began.

In the long term, Puryear sees Shakori building classrooms, even a school-type building on the land. With a year-round presence, the grounds could join the local school and churches as a cornerstone of Silk Hope, the unincorporated community nearby.

While some festivals are the scourge of their hosts, Shakori Hills seems to have its neighbors’ trust.

“I think it’s well received,” said Harold Rogers, who lives on his wife’s homestead a mile from the festival grounds. At 71, he’s a regular attendee. “There is a lot of local support for it. It also draws, I think, from the Triangle area, the Chapel Hill area and even outside the state. ... I just think the whole idea of having a forum for arts – I think that’s a plus.”

The land now is co-owned by Shakori Hills Community Arts Center and a larger sister organization, the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance in New York, which holds a 51 percent stake, Puryear said.

Eventually, he said, Shakori’s organizers will consider creating a conservation easement that would legally forbid future development on the land. For now, they’re reveling in the fact that Shakori Hills is turning from an event to a place.

“When we present it to the public,” said coordinator Sara Waters, “I’ve had a few friends and other people say, ‘We did it,’ and ‘We’re moving forward.’ It feels like a community thing. Everybody that cares about it can feel like they’re involved.”

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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