LINVILLE — A staple and significant economic boon to Avery County that celebrates all things Scottish, the commencement of the 65th Annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in July is uncertain due to the current global coronavirus pandemic.
The Games, which normally is a year-round planned festival that involves many working cogs in unison to arrange, has been taking a similar approach as a number of additional events that are taking place in the summer and fall, making provisions to hold off on a decision to host the MacRae Meadows extravaganza until the latest possible date.
“As of this conversation, the Highland Games is still open,” GMHG President Stephen Quillin said in an April 16 interview. “We held a board meeting April 4 and we have taken a look at all the commitments we need to make, as well as the timeframe for the commitments we need to make to stage the event.”
Since mid-March, the increased spread of COVID-19 and measures taken in response by local and state governments facilitated the reassessment of hosting the event by the organization. GMHG released a second letter of update on April 14 noting a final decision would be made in early May about the status of the Games.
“It’s a rather large, pretty complicated event. Our conclusion was that we could defer a lot of the decisions that we would normally make around April 15 until as late as May 2 and still stage the Games,” Quillin added. “May 2 is going to be our ‘drop-dead’ date for what we will do.”
Quillin went on to note logistical steps the organization has taken in light of the unprecedented current events in order to remain prepared should the opportunity to host this year’s Games come to fruition.
“We have put everything pretty much on hold. We are still continuing to receive orders for pre-event items, clan tents, camping registrations, discounted tickets that we sell before time and so forth. We were running through the end of March significantly ahead of last year and any previous year, and we’ve set attendance records four years in a row at the Games. 2020 was honestly going to be another banner year,” Quillin explained. “We normally make commitments this time of year for a lot of things that we normally rent, such as the large tents, the port-a-john contract, etc. We have pushed those back until we make the decision on May 2. We usually have our programs assembled and ready to roll by now, which is a pretty significant expenditure, and that is on hold right now. We have not printed tickets and wristbands, as that also is on hold. We are deferring everything we can until May 2, which is why we categorize May 2 as the ‘drop-dead’ date. We’ve gone as deep as we can to still have the Games staged.”
As with countless events across the area, state, nation and worldwide, the cancellation of the Games would pose a financial setback, but the group remains committed to the festival and its loyal patrons, vendors and guests.
“Our board is committed, if we are forced to cancel, to a refund or rollover or an offer for a donation because it’s going to cost the Games a significant amount of money if we cannot have them. We’re committed to refunding all the money that people wish to have refunded,” Quillen added.
GMHG is one of the most traditional highland games events in the world, hosting various athletes in amateur and professional disciplines. The event welcomes visitors annually from more than 25 states, as well as patrons from across Canada, Europe and Australia. The Games provides a significant economic boost to Avery County, as the festival pumps approximately $400,000 into the Avery County economy annually.
In addition, GMHG provides seasonal employment for more than 100 individuals who are involved in various aspects of the Games, including the assembly of tents and preparing the festival for the roughly 40,000 people who each year walk through its turnstiles.
“The thing I hate as much as anything has been the deferral of the hiring of temporary staff who help us set up the Games,” Quillin said. “There are always lots of teenagers in Avery County that earn summer money working for the Highland Games.”
In addition to the impact of the Games upon the local economy, from its effect on grocery stores and lodging, the Games helps a number of local organizations with providing much-needed funding. Longtime partners of Games, including Crossnore Volunteer Fire Department and its bus fleet and cook shack working the event, the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs who raise funds at the event through program sales and parking, are just a few of the groups who directly benefit from what GMHG brings to the table.
According to Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier, the impact of the Games on the community is sizable from multiple standpoints.
“The Games are made up of big-hearted people. For the local economy and schools, kids getting to work and draw a little summer paycheck, it’s unbelievable,” Barrier said. “It helps Avery EMS, solid waste, the school system does its part, but what the Highland Games gives back to the community, not only economically but to the nonprofits and money to scholarships to students, is substantial. The number of people that come in for the Games is significant, as is the economic impact and sales tax alone, but it also brings so much prestige to our county.”
Barrier also noted how the Games offers the opportunity to place Avery on center stage for visitors to see what the area has to offer.
“That’s the part of it you miss the most. It’s our chance to show off Avery County. It and the Woolly Worm Festival are two of the major events where we get to spotlight this place. It (possible cancellation) is really going to hurt,” Barrier added. “I spoke with Wilkes County, where they just had to cancel MerleFest, and spoke about the economic impact that is making on their county’s sales tax, workers and restaurants, of all those people not coming there. We’re hoping here for the best, and that they can have the Games this year, which would hopefully mean by that time we would have a cure to what’s currently taking place, and that’s my prayer, for sure. It would be a shame to have the event ready to take place for its 65th year, and something you just take for granted is happening all of a sudden doesn’t get to happen.”
Quillin did not rule out the possibility of postponing the Games until later in the year, but that move also comes with its own sizable set of challenges.
“There are some complicated things around opting for postponement. Obviously, there is the lodging issue. Grandfather Mountain Highland Games are different from most of the other highland games in the country because we are not close to a large city, so there’s very few hotel rooms available in Avery County, so some people go to Boone and Marion. There’s also an awful lot of house rental that occurs and that’s a pretty complicated thing,” Quillin said. “The other thing is the order that is in place in Avery County regarding the requirement to have to stay and quarantine for 14 days if you stay overnight in the county. Those requirements would have to be lifted also.”
Additional factors will go a long way in determining if GMHG can continue for its 65th renewal in 2020, not the least of which are the logistical issues associated with relaxing of orders issued by NC Governor Roy Cooper, including the prohibition of gatherings of more than 10 people and the need for practicing social distancing. Repeated calls by Quillin to the governor’s office for clarification of policy and its plan moving forward at the state level were not returned as of late last week.
“The biggest thing is we have to make sure that people are safe, and that they feel that they are safe. The governor also has to give us the legal authority to assemble unencumbered as well. The NC Department of Tourism told me the Highland Games puts $3.5 to 4.5 million into the High Country in a time when the skiing industry isn’t active, and you would think that our group could get a phone call (from the governor’s office),” Quillin explained. “We have to have a Highland Games with 40,000 people, and on a regular weekend you can’t maintain a six-foot distance when you’re around the clan tents around the circle. Those who are cooking and walking around the grandstands are close together, and that’s one of the things that makes the Games great. It just doesn’t make the Games great at this particular time.”
Quillin noted that the organization’s scholarship commitments to local students would remain unchanged, and also expressed gratitude to multiple people who have been working alongside GMHG during this crisis.
“I have gotten great support from Phillip Barrier with Avery County. He’s on a Western NC Emergency Response team and he has been very supportive, very helpful and very responsive,” Quillin said. “Jesse Pope from Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation has been extremely helpful and responsive. Both those guys have been just excellent.”
Quillin also recognized the impact of the event that is tangible from an emotional perspective.
“There’s tremendous emotional impact and kinship that goes on at Grandfather. People are embracing their individual family roots and it’s like a great family reunion each year. There’s also clanship at Grandfather Mountain. People come to embrace their general Scottish heritage. It’s more than just your own family, and Grandfather is special in that way,” Quillin noted. “The people that go to Grandfather, the campers, the people who run the tents, the vendors, the music entertainers, they love MacRae Meadow and love and care for that mountain. It’s almost a spiritual place. It’s going to be emotionally devastating to many people if we’re not able to go forward for this year.”
Regardless of the outcome of this year’s festival, Quillin shared that the Games organizers will take whatever happens in 2020 in stride, while promising to return in 2021 bigger and better than ever.
“We are really aware of what the Games means in Avery County. We’re really aware that the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games is a unique event within the scope of Scottish American events. We intend to keep GMHG in the unique character that it currently enjoys,” Quillin said. “If we’re not able to do that in 2020 because to this virus, that will make us work all the harder to come back in 2021 and make it even better. We may not be able to hold the Games because of these events that are totally out of our control for 2020, but we’re not going anywhere. We will manage our finances such that we’re not going anywhere. All those people who get mad due to our traffic might get one year off, but we’ll be back.”