RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- On the second day of the 2023 IBMA World of Bluegrass Festival, organizers announced the event was planning to leave Raleigh.
The festival came to Raleigh in 2013, relocating from Nashville in a change that was considered a coup at the time. The festival is considered the largest urban bluegrass festival in the world; it regularly brings more than 200,000 people to downtown Raleigh.
IBMA World of Bluegrass has reportedly generated more than $88 million in direct economic impact for the greater Raleigh area since 2013.
Festival organizers had nothing but positive things to say about Raleigh in a release announcing the decision to leave the city.
"Raleigh has been the fourth and most successful home for IBMA World of Bluegrass," said Paul Schiminger, the IBMA's Executive Director during most the event's tenure in Raleigh. "In seeking to attract our organization to Raleigh in 2013, the city worked closely to partner with the IBMA to expand the association's long-standing festival into a new model which included both ticketed and free stages in the downtown corridor. The success of this model was evident in the growth of attendees to over 200,000 people enjoying bluegrass music in each of the years from 2016 to 2019."
"We appreciate the strong partnership with the City of Raleigh, Wake County, PineCone and the entire community for these 11 years," says Dan Boner, IBMA Board Chair, "and we look forward to being here through 2024. It has been a mutually beneficial relationship for the IBMA and the City of Raleigh. Our decision is a mission-driven one to move our unparalleled week of bluegrass music to other communities to build and serve new audiences just as we have in the past."
It's unclear what exactly will replace the festival, but Raleigh representatives confirmed another large music festival is in the works.
It won't be easy to replace an event that's generated tens of millions of dollars for the local economy in the past decade and brings in hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
"We're sold out tonight through Saturday night. So it's just it you know, it gives our housekeepers, ours, the restaurant staff, you know, they're here for three and four or five days in a row. It's just great all the way around," said Kevin Johnson, Director of Sales and Marketing for the Sheraton downtown.
Johnson said, despite the uncertainty of what a future festival might bring in terms of foot traffic and overall revenue, he's excited to see what happens next.
"September and October are extremely busy conference and convention month. So as bad as we hate to see them leave we feel confident we'll be able to fill the whole," he said.
But there's also concern in the business community about life beyond bluegrass.
"It's not just an economic impact but it really adds to the soul of the city," said Greg Hatem.
Hatem runs nine restaurants in and around the Raleigh area and says he's skeptical about the city's ability to duplicate what's become a transformative event.
"This is a bigger issue if we can't keep such a broad-based festival. And in Raleigh and in downtown Raleigh, it makes me wonder what direction we're going and what direction we're going with our leadership," Hatem said.
There's no word yet on what the planned festival, scheduled to launch in 2025, might be named - nor what time of year it might take place.
"The festival will certainly include bluegrass but will be much more culturally expansive," said David Brower, PineCone Executive Director. "Gospel, funk, blues, and old-time are deeply rooted in this community and a whole lot of fun! We want to make sure this new festival both looks and sounds like Raleigh." PineCone is the Raleigh-based non-profit that has booked and produced the downtown bluegrass festival since it arrived in 2013.
"We're going to take everything that we've learned and everything that people love about Bluegrass in its current iteration and build upon that to make sure that we better represent the diversity within this community that we all know and love. There's going to be a lot of bluegrass in there, which people have grown to love, but there's also going to be blues and funk and gospel and a few other surprises around the corner, I hope," Brower said.
"While it is always sad to see a wonderful era end, we eagerly anticipate what our great city has planned for 2025 and beyond," said Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin. "We're grateful to our friends at the IBMA for expanding the roots and branches of bluegrass in Raleigh, and I look forward to a reimagined festival run by PineCone, with a continued focus on diversity and inclusion."