There's a palpable air of excitement around the upstairs bar in the Wild Wing Cafe. A varied assortment of volunteers, board members and sponsors of Asheville's Mountain Sports Festival have gathered here to celebrate the upcoming event, thank the sponsors (including Wild Wing), inhale some free food and enjoy the fruits of their labors.
"The Mountain Sports Festival is one of the best things about this city," board Chairman Gerald Green declares while accepting an oversized check from RBC Centura bank, the principal sponsor. "But events like this take a lot of money and a lot of hard work."
No argument there. But while everyone involved agrees that the MSF shows tremendous promise, opinions differ on how close the festival is to fulfilling that potential.
"It wasn't very successful in 2003," recalls Sales Coordinator Helen Langston of Nantahala Outdoor Center, an event coordinator. "It was better last year, and this year may be the turning point. Asheville needs a festival like this. We have the resources; we just need the people."
After a buzzworthy beginning, the MSF began to falter several years ago, hurt by organizational snafus. Last year's attendance was between 8,000 and 10,000, according to the city's Parks and Recreation Department -- up from previous years, but still not where organizers would like it to be. And though the festival has made great strides since the city began managing it, some still remember the structural and promotional woes that plagued those earlier incarnations.
Mountain Xpress staffer Sammy Cox, a festival volunteer for the first five years, recalls an act that headlined at Shindig on the Green on a Friday night and played the MSF main stage, just a few hundred feet away, on Saturday. "There were about 1,000 people at the Shindig show," he says. "At the Sports Festival, there couldn't have been more than 150."
That's just one example of the kind of perception problems the evolving event is still dealing with. Today, however, it enjoys strong support from both the city and the community.
All about the mountains
City Outdoor Recreation Specialist Christen McNamara sits in her east Asheville office, calmly shooting down a litany of criticisms. A complete listing of events was on the Web site (www.mountainsportsfestival.com) at the end of March -- more than a month before the festival start date. And while she admits that herding a bunch of go-with-the-flow outdoors enthusiasts into a fixed schedule was a bit of headache, she got the dang thing done early for the first time in the MSF's history.
Behind that tenacity and drive seems to lie a vision for the festival. "It's all about the mountains," she proclaims. "It's about the people that live in the mountains, that do these sports and that love mountain music."
Topography aside, most involved parties seem to agree that Parks and Recreation -- and McNamara in particular -- has been a strong catalyst for improving the event.
One event organizer, asked about a slight discrepancy in the schedule, inadvertently gave her high praise, saying, "I don't know -- I'm just going to do whatever Christen tells me."
Others who've worked with her echo that sentiment. "Dealing with Christen is like dealing with a private event director," says Sunset Stampede organizer Jonathan Poston, who was involved as a participant during the festival's first few years. "You wouldn't think that a government entity would be very efficient on something like this, but they've been really committed. They put the manpower behind it that it needed."
Who am I?
Still, behind all the press releases and sponsorships lurks one big, unanswered question: What is the Mountain Sports Festival?
How about Woodstock? The bands are there, the outdoors, perhaps even a smattering of peace and love. Or could it be the X Games? The jam-packed weekend features plenty of events that border on the absurdly dangerous, though the Beaucatcher Mountain Land Luge, featuring speed-freak maniacs going 80 mph on flimsy bits of plastic, is a thing of the past. Or maybe trumpeting two days of city-sponsored kayaking, rock climbing, mountain biking, rock 'n' roll and microbrewed beer is simply a clever way to entice Gen X-ers to spend their tourist dollars here?
In any case, the Mountain Sports Festival turned 6 years old on March 4. It's been an interesting uphill climb, with plenty of bumps and bruises along the way. Perhaps the most controversial was the handoff to the city three years ago. Everybody seems to have a different idea of why this happened, some kinder than others, but the consensus is that the MSF was getting too big and needed full-time city staff to help move it to the next level.
"The biggest challenge was for one person to try and do everything," says Green, who took over the chairmanship this year from former Asheville Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger. "That was impossible -- there was just too much." Especially when that one guy was simultaneously trying run his own business.
But Green, an enthusiastic middle-aged long-distance runner and biker, seems up to the task of shepherding the growing event.
"We need opportunities for active young people besides reality TV," he exclaims. "Not just recreational opportunities, but community-involvement opportunities and economic opportunities."
And while Green admits that the MSF is still in its adolescence, he maintains that this should be a banner event for the city.
"Each year we learn something, and each year we improve. The events get better; the music gets better. The challenge is to try and make people attracted."
Spotlight on Asheville
Both Green and McNamara mention the Teva Mountain Games in Vail, Colo., with the merest trace of envy in their voices. The Teva Games, now in their fifth year, have quickly become one of the pre-eminent outdoors events in the U.S., drawing big names for every sport and laying down cash prizes to match its profile.
"We've built a decent foundation," says Green. "Now we're framing on it. Eventually, we want a cash purse for each event."
But Green concedes that wooing high-profile competitors to an event that has emphasized participation by ordinary weekend warriors could alienate locals who've gotten used to winning.
"I want to win my age group, but if we can have the big-name folks come in ..." he says, his voice trailing off wistfully.
Not that Asheville isn't home to some extraordinary athletes who could hold their own against anyone in the country. The reactions of professional disc golfers to the Richmond Hill course has become a standing joke. A few years ago, it seems that some of the pros complained about the difficulty of the course -- and the intensity of the competition. (Disc golf, it's worth mentioning, is one of the few events that does offer a cash prize.)
Which brings us right back to the festival's identity crisis. Green and the rest of the board -- most of whom are under 40, with many under 30 -- want to put Asheville on the map as THE outdoors destination in the East. Eventually Green would like to entice big recreational businesses to set up shop here, boosting the local economy and providing viable employment opportunities for the growing population of young, college-educated people lured here, in part, by the area's abundant recreational opportunities.
Weather or not
But whether birthday No. 6 turns out to be a quantum leap forward or just another slow push of the pedals may hinge as much on the weather as on anything else. This year's festival has been moved from its established downtown location to Carrier Park on Amboy Road. The city, it seems, couldn't quite finish up the needed roadwork surrounding a torn-up City/County Plaza to stage a successful event there.
Still, it's a risky move at best.
McNamara maintains that Carrier Park, perched beside the French Broad River on the edge of West Asheville, is a good fit for the festival. "It takes us away from some events but puts us closer to others," she observes. "Just getting people to visit one of our flagship parks is worth it."
Green, however, sounds a different note, crossing his fingers as he says, "We hope it's a blessing in disguise."
The park is a large, mostly dirt area on the banks of the French Broad River. A recent sunny Saturday afternoon found about a dozen cars in the parking lot and the score or so picnic tables under the pavilion mostly empty. It's not hard to see why Green is urging everyone to pray that it doesn't rain: A couple of inches of precipitation, and MSF will stand for "Mud Sports Festival."
And though the site isn't hard to find, an oversized balloon -- plainly visible from the Interstate -- will mark the park. At press time, it hadn't been decided what the text on the balloon would be. Maybe it should read "Work in Progress."
[Freelance writer Sam Wardle lives in Asheville.]