WILKESBORO (April 14, 2022) – Community colleges benefit their communities in all sorts of ways. But for the past 34 years, MerleFest has benefited Wilkes County and surrounding communities in a way that’s unique to the people and music of the North Carolina foothills.
“MerleFest is a great example of what the community colleges in our state can do,” Wilkes Community College President Jeff Cox says in the accompanying video. “It would be hard to find a better entrepreneurial example than MerleFest.”
The annual festival of what Doc Watson called “traditional-plus” music – which returns to its normal schedule this month – began in 1988 as a one-time effort to raise money for campus gardens and memorialize Watson’s son Eddy Merle Watson.1
It’s since grown to an annual celebration not just of bluegrass music, but of multiple genres – and one that’s known not just in Wilkes County, not just in Northwest North Carolina, not just along the Eastern Seaboard, but around the world.
“It’s tremendous,” Cox says. “But the legacy of that and what it means not just for the college, but for the whole community – year in and year out, all these nonprofits … use this as the biggest fundraiser they have all year.”
MerleFest raises money for student scholarships and clubs – more than $500,000 for scholarships through 2019. And local nonprofits earn $400,000-500,000 a year through their work helping run the festival.
“That doesn’t even touch all the gas stations and restaurants and hotels,” Cox says.
“The four-day weekend has a $12 million economic impact on the region.”
According to MerleFest’s Economic Impact Report for 2019 – the last year the festival was held in full splendor:
- 73,356 fans participated over the four-day festival.
- Fans came from 48 states, the District of Columbia, and 10 foreign countries.
- The economic impact on Northwest North Carolina was $12.8 million.
- The economic benefit in Wilkes County alone was $6.8 million.
- Over 80 civic, community, and institutional groups and more than 4,500 volunteers participated. Those organizations earned an estimated $479,178 through their participation.
“For one long weekend, that’s a tremendous shot in the arm for the community,” Cox said. “Not to mention it’s put us on the map worldwide.”
Kim Faw, Wilkes’ Vice President of Instructional Support & Student Services, can attest to that.
Faw recalls how she and her husband were once sitting in an outdoor café in La Grand-Place square in Brussels, Belgium – and both had on their MerleFest T-shirts.
“A couple from Brussels passed by and got really excited, pointing at our T-shirts and saying, ‘MerleFest,’” Faw said. “They had traveled from Belgium to attend MerleFest!”
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