Downtown businesses are cheering this week’s return of World of Bluegrass, which last year provided one of the biggest tourism boosts in city history and made Raleigh a year-round hub for bluegrass music.
The city hadn’t hosted anything comparable and didn’t know what to expect when the International Bluegrass Music Association brought its annual gathering here for the first time last September. Would it resemble another trade convention? A music festival similar to Hopscotch? A big-name performance at the Red Hat Amphitheater?
The five-day celebration proved to be all that and more, generating an estimated $9.28 million in direct visitor spending for the local economy. About 140,000 people came downtown for the concerts, street festival, awards ceremony and convention. Of those, 84,000 were from outside Wake County.
“It was the best weekend ever in Raleigh – and I mean ever,” said Greg Hatem, who owns five restaurants downtown. “We were up 40 or 45 percent at all of our restaurants. It added to every single business.”
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World of Bluegrass returns Tuesday, with a business conference and nightclub showcases leading up to the Wide Open Bluegrass street festival Friday and Saturday. Attendance could be even bigger this year.
The bluegrass faithful have taken to Raleigh after years in Nashville, Tenn. There, it was overshadowed by country music and numerous other music events. In Raleigh, it’s the music event.
In addition to the restaurants and bars, Raleigh retail shops saw higher sales last year as fans snapped up anything bluegrass-related.
Holly Aiken created a special line of handbags featuring a banjo design. But she didn’t make enough of them.
“They pretty much sold out within the first day,” Aiken said. “We had no idea the response would be as good as it was.”
This year, Aiken is better prepared: She has 300 handbags ready to sell at her Wilmington Street shop and at a festival booth. The bags typically sell for more than $100 each, so another sell-out would be a huge boost to the small business.
And since World of Bluegrass draws visitors from Canada and overseas, Aiken’s designs generate a buzz well beyond Raleigh, which creates an uptick in online orders.
Bluegrass wares galore
Other businesses and local artists are jumping on the bluegrass bandwagon.
At Deco Raleigh – a gift shop at the corner of Hargett and Salisbury streets – owner Pam Blondin plans to sell official festival merchandise, as well as artists’ wares made especially for the event. She’ll have T-shirts featuring Sir Walter Raleigh playing the banjo, art prints with song lyrics and even bluegrass-themed tea towels.
“The artists are really into it,” Blondin said. “A couple of them have been gearing up the way they gear up for Christmas.”
Blondin also picked bluegrass week to unveil Raleigh’s first parklet, a tiny park in a single parking space on Salisbury Street. The musical entertainment for the parklet’s Friday grand opening? Bluegrass, of course.
And while last year’s concerts were mostly World of Bluegrass-sponsored affairs or impromptu jam sessions, 10 bars and restaurants have partnered with the Downtown Raleigh Alliance to host Bluegrass After Hours shows from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
From Moore Square to Glenwood South, it’ll be next to impossible to escape the sounds of mandolins, banjos and fiddles next weekend.
‘A bluegrass community’
With the festival committed to Raleigh through 2018, bluegrass has begun to take center stage in the city throughout the year.
This summer, three new concert series launched: the Midtown Bluegrass Series at North Hills, Pickin’ In the Plaza downtown and Beer and Banjos at Tir Na Nog Irish Pub.
Pickin’ In the Plaza was born out of a desire to expand the Oak City 7 series, which presents a variety of bands on Thursday nights. Promoter Dave Rose of Deep South Entertainment said he wanted to offer a City Plaza concert for every summer Thursday.
“It was Raleigh’s embracing the bluegrass festival that certainly skewed us in the direction of bluegrass as a good option,” Rose said.
Producing six bluegrass shows with little-known bands was a gamble. Rose wondered if the support for the genre was a “one-weekend phenomenon,” but attendance for the shows rivaled that of the more established Oak City 7 series.
“We are a bluegrass community, like it or not,” Rose said. “It was awesome to me to see that we’ll embrace this outside the confines of a big festival.”
‘Opened up doors’
Stalwarts of the Triangle bluegrass scene have also noticed the shift. Bands have been getting more gigs, and some are getting paid more, according to PineCone, the nonprofit that promotes roots music and partners with World of Bluegrass.
Plenty of the people at last year’s street festival were encountering live bluegrass for the first time. Many realized the genre goes well beyond the traditional image of twangy old men in suits.
“I think there’s a lot more awareness of bluegrass in the Triangle area,” said Russell Johnson of the Grass Cats band. “So many people went to that Wide Open street festival last year and had a great time.”
Steve Storms said his Raleigh-based band, the Gravy Boys, had a banner year after being selected as a World of Bluegrass showcase artist in 2013. He estimates that the group got about eight paying gigs directly from its festival performances. The group doesn’t tour, but it now boasts fans and radio airplay in other states.
“It opened up doors that haven’t been there before,” Storms said.
At this year’s festival, the Gravy Boys will open up for bluegrass legend Del McCoury at the Lincoln Theater on Thursday night. It’ll be the band’s biggest show yet.
On Friday, Curtis Media Group launched the area’s only all-bluegrass radio station – a format that’s rare in major media markets such as the Triangle. Bluegrass 102.3 (WFNL-FM) replaces a pop station that previously occupied the frequency.
“Our commitment to bluegrass started when WPTF hired Flatt & Scruggs in 1952,” Curtis executive vice president Trip Savery said in a news release. “We are very proud to bring our heritage back to the airwaves.”
Tourism boosters say it’s hard to compare the economic impact of bluegrass week to other big events hosted in Raleigh.
“Our area sees plenty of stand-alone meetings and conventions, sporting events and music festivals, but with those not having multiple events, you can’t really compare them to IBMA,” said Ryan Smith, a spokeswoman for the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Last year’s numbers were far better than organizers had projected. They’d hoped to generate at least $5 million in visitor spending by attracting 60,000 people.
Instead, the final tally came to more than 140,000 attending and $9.28 million in spending, most of it from overnight guests. That comes close to the $11.4 million estimated in 2011 when Raleigh hosted the NHL All-Star Game.
And it’s well beyond numbers for smaller events such as Hopscotch and the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon.
Hotel occupancy for Wake County was 81.9 percent on Saturday night of the festival last year – up from 63.1 percent on the same date in 2012. Most downtown hotels were completely booked.
The Visitors Bureau estimates the event generated $295,000 in tax revenues, more than making up for the $159,000 incentive grant used to lure the festival.
“The event itself has done everything we dreamed it would do,” said Laurie Okun of the Raleigh Convention Center. “Now we’re managing expectations, which is a little hard.”