Late in the summer of 1996, the checkered flag fell frantically at the North Wilkesboro Speedway as 25-year-old Jeff Gordon finished first in the NASCAR Tyson Holly Farms 400. A desperate Dale Earnhardt then zoomed by — a scant 1.73 seconds behind Gordon — to come in second. The victory was the tenth of the year for eventual 1996 NASCAR grand champion Gordon, but only his first at the historic speedway in Wilkes County. The late Dale Earnhardt had been trying for a sixth victory at the track.
Neither driver would have another chance to win a NASCAR race in North Wilkesboro.
Earlier that year NASCAR deemed the 48-year-old speedway and its 40,000 seating capacity too old and too small for big time racing in the 21st century and moved the track’s two annual events to pristine new facilities in Texas and New Hampshire. Many racing fans saw the move as NASCAR turning a blind eye to its western North Carolina roots in the pursuit of the almighty dollar.
NASCAR could easily find another track or two to replace North Wilkesboro Speedway. But the local economy in Wilkes County would have a hard time finding another racing organization that would attract the same number of fans to the area as NASCAR. The loss of the two races meant a depletion of millions of dollars in lost revenue for the track, its vendors, local restaurants, motels, stores and service stations. It was a loss of dependable annual cash that would have devastated many other areas of the country.
Fortunately for Wilkes County, the mid-1990s was when the Merle Watson Music Festival was truly beginning to hit its stride as one of the premiere bluegrass and Americana festivals in the country. The festival was started in 1988 as a one-day musical tribute to musician Merle Watson. By 1996 MerleFest had become an annual four-day event attracting more than 50,000 acoustic music fans to Wilkesboro and surrounding Wilkes County.
That first festival featured a handful of musicians playing on the back of two flatbed trucks for an estimated 4,000 fans. In 2003, MerleFest featured over a dozen stages and workshop areas where over 70,000 music fans whooped it up in a fun family atmosphere filled with the strains of banjos, guitars and mandolins.
More importantly for Wilkesboro, these fans repeatedly went for their wallets during their stay at MerleFest.
Festival organizers used guidelines recommended by Appalachian State’s College of Business to determine the total regional economic impact of MerleFest 2003 at around $12,286,800. The direct economic impact on Wilkes County alone is estimated at $6.5 million. Those figures include money spent by fans on tickets, food and souvenirs while at the festival site on the campus of Wilkes Community College, as well as money spent on lodging, gas, supplies and food while in the surrounding area.
One of the prime beneficiaries of the festival’s growth is the college where it is held. In 16 years MerleFest has contributed some $4.4 million to WCC directed toward scholarships, salaries, program enhancements and capital improvements.
Another Wilkes County festival, the annual Brushy Mountain Apple Festival in October, now attracts over 150,000 visitors to the area for the fall colors, live music and wide array of craft vendors. Organized by the Brushy Mountain Ruritan Club, the festival not only brings needed tourist income into the area but also raises money for the Ruritan’s scholarship fund.
The scholarship fund connected to the apple festival is just one example of how monies raised from festivals and local events have helped “fill the gap” as federal, state and local resources become scarce.
Take the Valle Country Fair, for example. The annual event attracts thousands of visitors to Valle Crucis in Watauga County for one day of music, food and craft vendors. Organized by the Church of the Holy Cross, the event raises money through vendor and parking fees for a number of non-profit organizations in Watauga and Avery counties.
Last year the event raised $30,000 to Reaching Avery Ministry, the Hunger Coalition, WAMY, Valle Crucis Day School, Volunteer Avery County, the Valle Crucis Community Park and High Country Amigos. Proceeds from this year’s festival will go to the Valle Crucis/Fosco/Grandfather Mountain Youth Enrichment Program, the Hunger Coalition and Parent Support Network of the High Country.
Across the valley in neighboring Sugar Grove, an organization called Cove Creek Preservation and Development (CCP&D) has established two annual festivals to raise money for the Old Cove Creek School. The beautiful stone building was built in the WPA era and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Both the Doc Watson Music Festival (August) and the Farm Heritage Days Fair (September) raise much needed funds for ongoing CCP&D projects. Over the years the organization has used the money to repair the infrastructure of the building and to establish the Doc & Merle Folk Art Museum on the first floor of the old school.
Currently the CCP&D is replacing all of the windows in the building with new double-paned ones that resemble the school’s original windows. Other renovation projects in the building include plans for a community room and day school.
Visitors to our mountain festivals may not realize it, but the money they spend here is continually funneled back into projects that will make our area a nicer place to visit and live.