When you turn off the winding conduit of two-lane blacktop and onto the dusty gravel driveway that leads to Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival in Chatham County, it's as if you've entered another world for a long weekend.
Sure, it's barely more than 20 miles from Chapel Hill, but twice a year, tents, campers and stone-encircled fire pits line the graceful slopes of green hills. Kids and parents, obsessive festival attendees and the casually curious alike pile into a handmade caboose attached to a tractor, riding together to a little wooden ticket booth and the entrance gate. Inside, people dance to zydeco bands and bluegrass pickers, sing alongside big-name folk bands and local rock outfits. Near the coffee barn, fiddlers and banjo players tune their familiar instruments. Someone pulls out a flat board. A clogger gets into the spirit.
Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival has grown almost every year since its inception in 2003 near the stop-sign town of Silk Hope. In 2006, the festival spawned a nonprofit of the same name that now not only controls the festival but also hopes to create a permanent home for the arts and the community on the 72-acre festival grounds. Next month, however, Shakori Hills' four-year lease agreement expires. Though that doesn't necessarily mean it would be displaced, the nonprofit is scrambling to raise $75,000 as a down payment to purchase the land.
Music festivals in fields certainly aren't unique. During most of the year, there's a constant network of them across this country and others. But owning the field the festival annually calls home is, at least, rare. Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, held each summer since 2002 on a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tenn., owns its land, though other nearby festival's don't. In its fifth year, the Lake Eden Arts Festival in Black Mountain, N.C., still rents its property.
"LEAF is a nonprofit and does not own any land," says LEAF's executive director, Jennifer Pickering. "Rental is very expensive. However, we made a decision years ago that this site is the right place for LEAF, and we work hard to make it all work in great balance."
In the haze of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia's FloydFest has used a 50-acre farm owned by Tom Pickett since 2002.
"We do not own the land that FloydFest is produced on," says Svetlana Nikic, FloydFest's publicist, "but we have a great relationship and long-term agreement with our landlord."
Sara Waters, Shakori Hills' co-coordinator and public relations director, says the nonprofit entered a similar long-term agreement in 2006—a lease with the intention of eventual ownership if the festival proved successful. Four years later, Shakori Hills organizers believe the festival has done just that. The festival has grown by 55 percent since then, with 2009 being the slowest year thus far, something Waters attributes to the weak economy, not festival quality. In fact, the festival has proven so viable that director Jordan Puryear is confident that they'll be able to make regular mortgage payments on the land from festival revenue. The trouble, though, is available cash.
"The down payment, that we cannot afford," says Waters, who calls money "the only obstacle" for the purchase.
So why not just renew the lease or rent the property like so many other festivals?
Waters says the festival hopes to create a lasting community arts center, and that they've already spent seven years cultivating a fan base and a reputation in one location. Shakori Hills will forever remain Shakori Hills, she hopes.
And during those seven years, festival staff and volunteers have unloaded a lot of labor into those acres—thosuands of hours, says Waters. They've improved the old farm's gravel roads and built wooden structures like the permanent Grove Stage, a ticket booth, a security booth, ranger stations, trash disposal areas and a sustainability pavilion. They've installed a power system for lights and a solar power system that will hopefully run the festival in the future. They've maintained the small homestead house for office activities, designed a parking system, built a separate kitchen and worked to conserve the location's natural species. These improvements total an estimated $100,000, says Waters.
That type of work isn't the norm, says Megan Romer, publicist for the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival, Shakori's sister festival.
"Because of the upkeep required on land and the infrastructure needed for a festival, it's usually more cost-effective for festivals to just rent a park or fairground or farm in perpetuity," said Romer. The Finger Lakes festival is in its 20th year and leases its annual spot at the Trumansburg Fair Grounds. Ownership isn't a priority. "It's actually much wiser for Shakori Hills, both for financial reasons and stewardship reasons, to own their own land, and really allows them a lot of unique opportunities to use the land for all different sorts of events. It's a really cool thing."
In general, this festival business isn't one that turns a profit, Romer notes, so ownership isn't for everyone. But Romer sees Shakori as a pioneer that might inspire other start-up nonprofits to blend the arts with ecology. Well, if they can make their down payment.
Anne Winfield purchased the property, appraised at $557,283 by Chatham County, for $625,000 in 2006. Her property manager and agent, Gary Phillips, says she hopes the festival will keep the land, but nothing is certain, and renewing the lease has not been discussed.
"Anne Winfield wants Shakori to stay alive and will do whatever she can to help make that happen," says Phillips. "She also loves the farm and wants to make sure it's well-cared for long term."
Waters does not foresee the festival losing the homestead, and she says that the property owners have been supportive throughout the festival's run. Still, as Waters puts it, "Money is money. Property is property. The economy is the economy."
And, for now, they've got plenty of cash to raise.
Shakori Hills Inc. hosts a kick-off event for its fundraising campaign on March 14. Anyone interested in attending and potentially donating should contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 919-542-1746. Visit www.shakorihills.org for more information.