This weekend marks the 35th—and final—Bele Chere festival in Asheville.
Sandra Travis, festival program supervisor for the city of Asheville, says it’s hard to picture, but downtown Asheville was essentially deserted when the city had its first Bele Chere in 1979. “It started out really small. It was a way to revitalize downtown Asheville,” she said.
Travis said when she started volunteering for Bele Chere in 1988, downtown was much different than it is today. “We used to choose our headquarters space based on which abandoned storefront we could make livable for three days. We literally pulled plywood off the windows and ripped carpet out … We had so many choices of abandoned storefronts that we could use for headquarters. It’s hard to believe now.”
This year, Travis expects anywhere from 250,000 to 300,000 people to come to Bele Chere, though it’s difficult to predict since no one has to buy tickets. “It’s the biggest free music festival in the Southeast,” Travis said.
For Travis, this is the 26th Bele Chere she’s helped organize. The first 18 were as a volunteer; then, in 2005, she got a full-time festival job with the city. At first glance, Bele Chere might look French to you, but it’s not—it’s actually old Scottish, meaning “beautiful living.”
Travis said the name came from a local ad agency called Price McNabb. “As they were making their pitches to the city and the county to try to produce the street festival,” she said, “The story goes that they were literally on their way in to present this whole concept and realized they didn’t really have a name. And one of the people from Price McNabb came running up and said, ‘Wait, I’ve got it!’”
Travis said the story took on an air of urban myth, but the first chair of Bele Chere, Robin Daniel, brought Travis a pile of papers—in it was proof that the story was true. Now, 35 Bele Cheres later, Asheville will see its last. It’s sad for Travis, but she’s staying positive.
“It’s tough,” she said. “But 35 is an awesome run.”
Because the city will no longer fund the event, Travis and two other full-time employees will be out of jobs after Sunday. Travis said the city is trying to find other positions for them--but right now, their mission is to make Bele Chere happen.
“We can dwell on it, but that’s not going to get everything on the street. A lot of people have asked me, ‘What are you going to do?’ I told them, ‘I’ll think about that in August.’”
Greta Johnsen is the new Morning Edition host/reporter at WCQS. You can follow her on Twitter: @gretamjohnsen.