The annual “Shine to Wine Festival,” held in early May in downtown North Wilkesboro, has been canceled for this year by the event sponsors, Historic Downtown North Wilkesboro (HDTNW).
Debbie Ferguson, the immediate past president of HDTNW and a member of the North Wilkesboro town board, told her fellow commissioners Thursday night at their monthly work session that there was no longer sufficient time to promote the ninth annual event.
“We have been dealing with the financial issues that led to the resignation of Ms. (Aisha) Little (the group’s former director),” Mrs. Ferguson said. “It’s just too late for the promotions committee to get the work done properly for the event this year.”
Ms. Little resigned in late January from the position she had held since September 2010. She was charged Feb. 13 with 46 warrants for felony embezzlement, two warrants for forged endorsements, and four misdemeanor warrants for accessing a computer to defraud or obtain property in a case that involves over 275 different transactions.
The transactions totaled $46,115.48.
“We want the festival to come back in the future,” she said. “Interest, however, has been dropping since 2008. A lot more towns are starting their own festivals now, and that‘s one reason attendance has dropped.”
Several commissioners suggested moving the event to the fall and possibly combining it with sampling opportunities for crafts beers produced in the area as part of a wine and “Oktoberfest” event.
Mrs. Ferguson said that the HDTNW would meet next Thursday to discuss the current issues and the future of the group.
“The members of the HDTNW board have been working to provide a financial accounting for the town board after the reports given to HDTNW and the auditors were found to have been fabricated,” said Mrs. Ferguson. “An accurate financial accounting has been developed, and the group is now operating with clear and accurate figures.
“HDTNW board members have been generously contributing personal funds to pay the debts of the organization, but we still expect our insurance to cover the losses,” she added. “The insurer said earlier today that full payment of the $40,000 coverage is likely to be made in the near future. The remainder of the money will be covered when the bank refunds the money for the forged checks. That includes one forgery on Nov. 30, 2012 and the other three in December 2012.”
“The HDTNW board members invited Liz Parham, the director of the N.C. Main Street program to come on Feb. 13 to provide guidance on ways to provide the services of the Main Street program yet eliminate the risk involved with a staff of one employee and a volunteer board,” Mrs. Ferguson said. “Ms. Parham stated that over 50 percent of the N.C. Main Street programs now operate under some form of town government to provide additional staff and oversee controls.”
A minimum of 20 hours weekly would need to be devoted to the principles of the Main Street program for the town to maintain a member of the program. The program focuses on reinvestment in the historic downtown areas throughout the country, encouraging promotional events, economic revitalization and historic preservation.
The HDTNW board unanimously approved a motion to request town involvement in the organization. The HDTNW board is reviewing a plan to request that the town employ the staff person who would handle the Main Street responsibilities. The town would handle oversight of the organizations finances.
Mrs. Ferguson said that the members and volunteers working with HDTNW are continuing to work to develop a plan of summer events for promotion of the downtown area.
Commissioner Dr. Leo Baugham asked Mrs. Ferguson how the illegal transactions could continue so long without being detected by the HDTNW board members.
“I’ve been asked if the board members went to sleep,” he said.
“This was a sophisticated operation,” Mrs. Ferguson replied. “We were being presented with documents that looked real saying that we had more money in the bank than we actually had.
“We had receipts as well. I came down here to town hall at one point and argued for a day and a half that the group’s rent (for office space in town hall) had been paid, because that’s what these documents showed.”
One of the fund-raising ideas that was discussed by the HDTNW committees and Town Manager Larry South was operating a campground for MerleFest on the town’s five-acre tract on the Block 46 site (the former site of the American Drew Furniture complex).
The town’s fire department has operated a campground during the festival at Rotary Park at West Park for nearly 10 years.
While the campground’s 50 “full service” sites (with water, sewer and electrical hookups) sold out in January, there are still spaces available for tent camping. The department has “over 200 spaces” available in the parking area at the fairgrounds, according to North Wilkesboro Fire Chief Niki Hamby, with additional spaces, if needed, in adjacent lots.
“We’ve never sold out of the campsites,” said Hamby.
South told the board, “I originally mentioned having camping because I thought the fire department tent sites were full. We certainly don’t want to be in competition with the firemen.”
The commissioners agreed to allow camping at the Block 46 site, operated by HDTNW, but only if the fire department campground sold out of spaces.