Raleigh rolling out the red carpet for World of Bluegrass

raleighSince the International Bluegrass Music Association was formerly chartered in 1985, we’ve seen it grow and change as all trade organizations do. And like any group with a strong contingent of traditionalists, IBMA has members and followers who have resisted a few of these modifications over the years.

Perhaps its most visible public manifestation, the annual World of Bluegrass convention and IBMA Awards show, have moved three times over the intervening 23 years. There are folks who hated the move from Owensboro to Louisville, KY in 1997, while others looked askance at the relocation of these events to Nashville in 2005. Now with Raleigh, NC slated to host them for the next three years, there are rumblings of discontent yet again.

But Raleigh it is for 2013-15, without regard to what anyone thinks.

Last month we made a visit to North Carolina’s state capitol to see the facilities, and meet the people who will manage them, when the bluegrass world congregates there September 24-28. The folks with the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau along with representatives from the Raleigh Convention Center, the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts Center, and the Pinecone Council of Traditional Music gave us the grand tour and entertained all of our questions throughout the day.

Based on what we learned, we’ll have a number of reports over the next two weeks about what’s in store for World of Bluegrass 2013, broken down into items of interest particularly to exhibitors, showcase artists, pickers, registered WOB attendees, award show participants and audience, and ticket holders for the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival, formerly billed as Fan Fest. It appears that in each of these categories, Raleigh has much to offer as compared to Nashville, especially in the areas of cost and convenience.

Raleigh Convention CenterIn this first installment, we’ll talk about the talented people in Raleigh who spent several years wooing the IBMA to move their premier events to town, and the efforts they are making to ensure its success. As you might expect, Raleigh wants to see World of Bluegrass make a permanent home there in the Research Triangle, and they are going all-out to see that both IBMA members and leadership leave their convention with nothing but smiles on their faces.

Perhaps the most valuable asset the city offers is the close coordination of the various facilities under one tent, and the fact that hosting the conference and festival in downtown Raleigh includes the services of nearly two dozen people whose full time job involves marketing and promoting the city and the events held within its borders. Not only are these experienced professionals in their field, they have a direct, vested interest in making this a big win for everyone.

Other than evening showcases, which will be hosted at a number of nearby venues, all of the week’s events will be held in properties under city management, or in the adjoining hotels. This should make logistics a bit easier for IBMA staff, and make coordination less of a burden.

A New Downtown Raleigh

Downtown Raleigh mapThe city of Raleigh has been engaged in a major downtown revitalization campaign this past decade. They demolished their civic center and auditorium amid plans for a modern hotel and convention center in its place, just blocks from the capitol building on Fayetteville Street.

These plans coincided with a change in the traffic patterns on this main downtown business artery. Like many cities in the 1970s, they had created a pedestrian mall along Fayetteville in ’77, which never achieved its desired result of bringing more people downtown. In July of 2006, the street was reopened to vehicular traffic, just as the old civic center came crashing to the ground. The new hotel and convention center opened in 2008, across the street from the city’s performing arts center, which had undergone extensive renovation and expansion 15 years earlier. Two years later, an outdoor amphitheater opened behind the convention center on an abandoned lot, and the structural components in Raleigh’s plan for becoming a regional arts and convention destination were in place.

Now, the five blocks of Fayetteville street are anchored on the north by the capitol complex, and on the south by the PAC. The new Marriott hotel sits on the west side of last block south, with the convention center one block west, and the amphitheater one more west.

An Amtrack station lies one block further west, with the train coming through town just behind the amphitheater stage. The entire downtown center is serviced by a free shuttle bus service called the R-Line, and there are dozens of parking garages throughout.

The area is literally swarming with restaurants, with everything from a quick grab-n-go to haute cuisine available within a few blocks of the convention facilities.

The Hunt For IBMA

While this plan was still a few steps from completion, IBMA’s World of Bluegrass came up on city officials’ radar. Laurie Okun, Director of Sales and Marketing at the Raleigh Convention Center, tells us that they first caught wind of it in February 2007, when Raleigh was exhibiting at the Destination Marketing Association International conference in Washington, DC.

Laurie Okun“We felt then that the perfect ‘event campus’ was taking shape for IBMA’s events right here in downtown Raleigh! So we inquired, and in January of 2008 – with the convention center set to open in September and the amphitheater in 2010 – IBMA sent us a request for proposal for 2010, 2011, and 2012.

We put forth a bid, and IBMA choose to stay in Nashville.

We were told that our facilities had to actually come to fruition before the bid would be seriously considered. And, we never let go.”

As soon as the convention center opened, they sent photos to then IBMA Executive Director Dan Hays. When the amphitheater came on line in June 2010, with the rear of the convention center covered with an illuminated shimmer wall, they got the IBMA’s attention.

Grand opening of the Red Hat Amphitheater in Raleigh, NC - June 2010“The minute I sent this picture of the opening of the amphitheater, Dan said…’now you are a serious contender.’

In December 2011, we were sent another request for proposals, this time for 2013-2015, and we were victorious! And we shared the vision of a street festival for the public in conjunction with their weekend festival, and the rest is history.”

The street festival Laurie mentioned will involve closing off parts of adjoining streets on Friday and Saturday of IBMA week, with the city hosting a free music and BBQ event for local residents. All of Raleigh will be invited downtown for bluegrass and pig pickin’ that weekend.

The IBMA board is still discussing ways to entice this “extra” constituency to come inside the convention center where exhibitors will be displaying during Wide Open Bluegrass. You can expect this to be on the table when the board meets there next weekend.

Next: a look at the facilities themselves…

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.