Festivals bring money to Durham, but business leaders see bigger picture

Musician Bernie Worrell, far left, is surrounded by photographers while he plays in the Pop-up Factory at the Boiler Room Lobby during Moogfest in Durham on Friday, May 20, 2016. Worrell is a founding member of Parliament/Funkadelic.
Musician Bernie Worrell, far left, is surrounded by photographers while he plays in the Pop-up Factory at the Boiler Room Lobby during Moogfest in Durham on Friday, May 20, 2016. Worrell is a founding member of Parliament/Funkadelic. Juli Leonard -

After Moogfest jettisoned Asheville for Durham last year, the city grabbed national headlines and attracted thousands of visitors for a three-day weekend of music and technology exhibitions.

It was the highest profile festival held in the Bull City in 2016, but it was hardly the only one the city offered.

In the span of a little more than a month – from early April until mid May – three festivals (the film festival Full Frame and the music festivals Art of Cool and Moogfest) took place in the downtown core of Durham, crowding the streets with visitors from across the globe.

It’s a scenario that is repeating itself this year.

Collectively, those festivals brought an estimated total attendance of 25,851 and had a total economic impact of around $13 million last year, according to data compiled by the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Moogfest brought in the most of those three festivals with a total attendance of 10,282 and an estimated economic impact of $7.16 million. (The numbers don’t include the American Dance Festival, which takes place for a six-week period in June and July.)

But for as important as that influx of money is, the real strategy of Durham’s festival season, business leaders say, is exhibiting the city to the rest of the country.

“Festivals are an important economic impact for Durham,” said Shelly Green, chief executive officer of DCVB. “But there is a bigger picture for the festivals, and it’s referred to as the billboard effect.”

For as many out-of-towners that came to Durham to see a band at Moogfest or a movie at Full Frame, just as important in the eyes of Green, were the writers and journalists from newspapers, magazines and online publications from all across the world that also came to Durham.

Those writers, in turn, put pen to paper — highlighting the city positively in publications ranging from The New York Times to the music site Pitchfork at a time when the controversial House Bill 2 began impacting North Carolina’s image.

Geoff Durham, CEO and president of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, agreed that festivals play an important role in shaping Durham’s image to the rest of the country. The addition of Moogfest was important, but it’s one part of an overall festival strategy.

“Moogfest doesn’t stand alone and is not a success without those other festivals,” he said. “Moogfest is a critical piece of the puzzle to a festival strategy.”

Durham believes the entire festival schedule holds an important role in fortifying Durham’s image as a city that views diversity as essential. The festivals, which range from independent films to free-form jazz to electronic experimentation, are as diverse as the city that hosts them, he said.

“These festivals are a sign of our growth,” he said, noting the importance of building a national narrative. “The need to embrace our diversity is critical to moving durham forward.”

That diversity, he believes, will help the city attract skilled talent. A vital resource the city is constantly competing with other growing cities for.

American Underground, a tech incubator in downtown Durham that has received national attention in recent years, is a sponsor of both Art of Cool and Moogfest.

The sponsorships allowed American Underground to leverage its brand on a national stage during the festivals, said Adam Klein, chief strategist at the tech hub.

It’s also a chance to advertise American Underground to potential entrepreneurs looking for a place to locate their businesses.

“Durham has always had the ability to be a small town on the national landscape but still attract what people call national calibre musicians, plays or musicals at its venues,” he said.

“That is a great pitch. You don’t have to compromise here, you can have a great quality of life with the (cultural) amenities that you would find in New York or Chicago.”

But to keep the city attractive to talent, businesses must be willing to support festivals such as Art of Cool and Moogfest through sponsorships, he added. The city and county also contributed, putting up $30,000 for Art of Cool and $62,500 for Moogfest.

“All three festivals are a chance for the part of Durham that we love best, creative vibrancy, to be shown at a national level,” Klein said.

“And it’s a chance for the startup culture to be highlighted next to that. I think in the next few years you will see these festivals grow and go higher levels.”

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes

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