Sept. 22--RALEIGH -- City tourism officials first applied to host the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual awards show, convention and music festival six years ago.
Back then, the bluegrass association was not particularly impressed with Raleigh's half-built convention center and a vacant lot that would eventually host an outdoor amphitheater. "We were told, 'Come back when you've got something to look at instead of a crane,' " recalled Laurie Okun, the convention center's director of sales and marketing.
Flash forward to this week, when Raleigh is rolling out the red carpet after successfully luring the bluegrass association's event from its longtime base in Nashville, Tenn. Thousands of visitors are expected to spend $5 million to $10 million in a busy week that will include an awards show, a street festival, a business conference and five days and nights of concerts by virtually every major act in the bluegrass world.
Winning the conference was a coup for Raleigh. But it also offers new opportunities for members of the bluegrass community, who often felt overshadowed by their country music cousins in Nashville.
"In Nashville, we were a small fish in a big pond," said Lynda Dawson, the lead singer for the Raleigh-based Kickin Grass Band. "In Raleigh, we're a big fish in a medium-sized pond. There's a lot more community tie-in here."
In Raleigh, bluegrass will take over downtown from Tuesday through Saturday, with nightly showcases at six nightclubs and a free weekend festival on Fayetteville Street. Nashville's festivities were largely confined to a convention center, and few outside the genre's faithful participated.
"We're essentially blowing up the old model that was in Nashville," said William Lewis, director of PineCone, the local bluegrass and roots music nonprofit that is helping IBMA organize the event.
Beating the Music City
Nashville's Ryman Auditorium -- formerly home of the Grand Ole Opry -- has always been a popular spot for awards shows, often hosting the Country Music Association Awards and the past eight International Bluegrass Music Awards.
While it's hard to argue with the Opry, bluegrass musicians were less pleased by the Music City's aging convention center and rising hotel rates.
"For a lot of our folks, it was getting very expensive," said Nancy Cardwell, director of the bluegrass association.
In contrast, Raleigh's hotels are offering convention deals as cheap as $68 a night, and the downtown Marriott is offering special "jamming floors" where the usual noise restrictions don't apply.
IBMA officials also say Raleigh's new convention center is a better fit -- open-floor plan, more natural light -- and attendees won't have to spend all their time there like they did in Nashville.
Friday and Saturday's headlining shows featuring Bela Fleck, Del McCoury, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell will happen across the street at the Red Hat Amphitheater. And instead of being showcased in bland convention hall rooms, up-and-coming bands will play nightclubs such as Raleigh's Pour House Music Hall, Architect Bar and Kings Barcade. Or they'll be outside playing the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival with three stages along Fayetteville Street.
"There's just something nice about listening to good bluegrass music outside," Cardwell said.
Luring the bluegrass association took only one major financial incentive: a $159,000 grant from the Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. That funding comes from local hotel tax revenues -- not city tax dollars -- and is based on the number of contracted hotel rooms.
Visitors bureau vice president Loren Gold said the money is a good investment because the event should generate more than $5 million in direct visitor spending. "At the end of the day, it could climb much higher than that," Gold said.
This is the first of at least three years the association will gather in Raleigh. Because the city hasn't hosted the event before, Gold isn't sure exactly how tourism numbers will stack up.