The Red, White and Blue Festival, formerly known as the Red, White and Bluegrass Festival, will not return to Catawba Meadows Park in Morganton this year. The City decided to cancel the Red, White and Blue Festival after several years of declining attendance and revenue. At its peak, the festival made at least 60 percent of its expenses back in ticket and vending sales. By 2019, the festival was making back only 20 percent of the money it cost to put on.
City officials say there will still be plenty of summer festivities to enjoy. The City will hold its annual free July 4th celebration featuring music, food, activities for kids, and a fireworks show at Catawba Meadows Park.
“We recognize and appreciate the artistic value and significance the Red, White and Blue festival provided over the course of more than 15 years,” said Parks and Recreation Director Rob Winkler. “Unfortunately, attendance numbers have been falling since 2013. We could not justify committing limited public resources to this event. We are looking forward to continuing to provide our annual free July 4th celebration.”
The Red, White and Blue Festival began as the Red, White and Bluegrass Festival in 2004. It featured local and regional bluegrass acts, celebrating the bluegrass music of the Appalachian region. The festival started small, being held in the parking lot of the Collett Street Recreation Center outdoor pool, and grew in size until it had to be moved to Catawba Meadows Park.
Weather drove down attendance at back to back festivals in 2013 and 2014. One year saw heavy rains flood Catawba Meadows Park, causing many campers to become stuck in the park. The next year brought extreme heat, making it unpleasant to attend the outdoor festival. After this, attendance numbers declined steadily each year. Festival attendance did not recover from these back-to-back weather events that prevented many people from attending.
Over the years, the festival drew big bluegrass and country acts such as Diamond Rio, The Cleverlys, Balsam Range, Larry Sparks the Steep Canyon Rangers, and more. Regardless of these popular acts performing, attendance kept falling. After markedly low attendance at the 2018 Red, White and Bluegrass Festival, the City revamped the festival into the Red, White and Blue Festival in 2019.
The revamped version included a wider variety of musical acts on two different stages; substantially cheaper ticket prices; free activities throughout the park including inflatables for children, volleyball games, hay rides, train rides, cornhole games; access to the Beanstalk playground; and, for the first time ever, festival-goers were able to purchase alcohol. Attendance still did not increase, and instead continued to fall, despite these changes.
“We made these changes in an effort to attract more people and appeal to a wider audience. We tried everything we could,” Winkler said. “We were happy to offer a lot of musical variety, and are glad we were able to attract a more diverse audience. Unfortunately, attendance still declined. In the final analysis, we were investing more and more taxpayer money in an event that was drawing small crowds and returning little revenue. Being responsible with taxpayer funds is important, and ultimately it is what affords us the opportunity to offer services and experiences for our community to enjoy.”
The annual recreation department Fourth of July festival began in the early 1980s as a town fireworks show on the campus of Western Piedmont Community College. But then it grew — to the point where the campus just couldn’t hold the crowds anymore. In 2004, the tradition morphed into the first Red, White and Bluegrass Festival.
Musical acts and more details about this year’s annual July 4th celebration at Catawba Meadows Park will be announced at a later date.