SANFORD, N.C. — When the Sanford Pottery Festival returns the first weekend in May, visitors throughout the state and well beyond will flock to Sanford once again. While that's certainly good for artists and festival organizers, it's even better for the community at large. Not only does the state's largest pottery festival inject much-needed cash into the local economy during its weekend run, but its influence elevates Sanford's reputation and stimulates local spending all year long.
Gauging the economic impact of any single event can be difficult, but the best estimates say visitors spend close to $1 million each year. That's based on widely accepted industry estimates of how much people typically spend on day and overnight trips times the actual number of people attending the festival each year, which has ranged from about 7,500 to 10,000.
When you consider indirect impacts as well — how money spent that weekend generates additional spending throughout the community — a conservative estimate of the event's total economic impact runs somewhere from $10 to $12 million over the festival's decade in operation.
Obviously, visitors spend money on art, food and wine — this is the fourth-straight year the festival has featured a tasting showcasing some of the state's top wineries — but they also book hotel rooms, flood local restaurants and spend dollars shopping downtown.
Jenks Youngblood, owner of the Sanford Antique Mall, says many of his repeat customers discover the antiques emporium solely because of the pottery festival. It all begins with what he calls "huge days" during the festival, itself, and continues for weeks and months after the festival closes its doors.
"People often come in the shop and say they're visiting because of the pottery festival," Youngblood explains. "Even weeks later, some will say they spent the entire day at the pottery festival and are now coming back to visit. It's amazing what the festival has done for the city. Just the fact that I can go to see friends in Raleigh and they've all heard about the pottery festival shows that it's huge."
Reputation On the Rise
That positive buzz points to another local benefit from the pottery festival: From all accounts, the festival has largely been responsible for Sanford's growing reputation regionally as a hub for the arts. Go back a couple of decades and few people outside the area knew much about Sanford. Nothing in particular defined the city for people passing through — unless it was some less-than-savory retail establishment along Horner Boulevard or the chance to stop for gas or a burger on the way to somewhere else.
All of that has changed.
Just a few months ago, The Carolina Artists' Colony opened downtown to display and sell work by local artists, including some fairly renowned painters that have migrated here. Even though it's a new venture, The Artists' Colony already has work by 85 artists on exhibit — about three-quarters of them from Sanford and adjacent communities — and even more artists are calling every day. And the "colony" is just one of many studios and shops carrying painting, pottery, sculpture and innovative, multimedia creations.
It's evidence the area has achieved some sort of critical mass for creative talent.
Beverly Brookshire, who relocated to Sanford from New York City, says that when she arrived roughly eight years ago, there was just one retail establishment in Sanford selling artists' work. Now, she counts at least eight and says the "art trend" continues to soar. There could be several reasons for the renaissance; but, most of all, she credits the Sanford Pottery Festival.
"It has brought a great interest in Sanford when you speak of 'artist transplants,'" she explains. "Visiting Sanford and participating in Barbara Berman's booth at the Sanford Pottery Festival helped convince me to move to Sanford. Barbara and her husband, Fred, had just moved in September; the festival was in May and she was already participating. I credit the Sanford Pottery Festival as one of the great draws."
Cashing In On Pottery
Sanford's renowned pottery festival and growing arts scene could be a key to the region's economic future. Don Hudson, founder and director of the Sanford Pottery Festival, points east to Selma, where another Tar Heel community transformed its reputation and economy by embracing antiques.
The Johnston County Visitors Bureau now bills the city as the "Antique Shopping Capital of North Carolina" and the Antiques Dealers and Merchants of Selma detail an aggressive plan used to attract dealers and promote the city as a destination for shoppers. That plan went well beyond advertising; it actually included free commercial rent for anyone who would open an antiques or arts store.
Hudson saw the transformation first hand. When the effort was launched, his own, large pottery studio was located in Clayton, not far from the burgeoning antiques mecca. "The Town of Selma contacted us in the early '90s and said, 'We would like for you to come and put your pottery studio in downtown Selma. We're going to recreate this community around the arts and antiques and if you will move, we'll give you 19 months of free rent and as much space as you require.' They knew that having the largest pottery studio in the state would anchor a lot of their development."
Though Hudson and business partner Kenneth Neilsen eventually moved their studio, DK Clay, to Sanford, Selma's plan worked. Now, there are more than 100,000 square feet of antiques in shops located within walking distance of each other and the city has clustered restaurants, entertainment and other shopping options around the antiques hub.
Hudson believes the same thing could happen in Sanford. He estimates that Sanford already has a quarter of the antiques space that Selma has established — and that's without any particular effort to attract dealers. The city also has that expanding hub of artists; professional, year-round theater productions at the Temple Theatre; a downtown with attractive shops and outstanding, locally owned restaurants; and even more space available in nearby buildings being renovated.
Nothing happens by itself, but all of the elements are in place for Sanford to make a big splash. Bob Heuts, Lee County's economic development director, says the pottery festival has already raised Sanford's stature and built its reputation as a community for the arts — which is the most critical element in the mix.
"I go all over the state to meet with community and business leaders and when I say that I'm from Sanford, people immediately ask about the pottery festival and the arts here," he says. "The Sanford Pottery Festival has become the face of our community and it's hard to imagine a better way to be known than as a city that embraces commerce and the arts."
In addition to that all-important reputation, Heuts says the city also has a prime location — near affluent residents in the Triangle, Pinehurst and Fayetteville — and the roads visitors need to make the short drive easily. Bringing people to the community has other benefits as well, since one of the ways to build a community is attracting influential people that could eventually become permanent residents or local business owners.
A Future Built on Arts and Industry
When cash registers begin ringing at this year's Sanford Pottery Festival, it may be opportunity at the door. If there's a concerted effort to build on the festival — perhaps following the Selma model or one developed by some of the creative types locally — it could further expand the local economy and merge arts with the thriving local industrial base into a powerful economic engine.
If that does happen, nobody will be happier than Hudson. "The festival was never an end in itself, but a way of promoting the entire community," he says. "The goal has always been to get people here, introduce them to the Temple Theatre, antiques and all we have to offer. And to give them plenty of reasons to come back to Sanford."
The Lee County Economic Development Corp. is a nonprofit organization established to attract industry, enhance job opportunities and promote sound planning across Lee County. Funding is provided by the county, as well as the City of Sanford and Town of Broadway, the county's two municipalities.