Friday, July 19, 2024

Asheville gets serious with Ideas Fest event

Asheville is more than just a place to have a good time, say organizers of an event that hopes to bring hundreds of people here in June to discuss solutions to serious topics.

The four-day Asheville Ideas Fest  – which comes with a cost of $1,500 to $2,000 per person to attend – takes place June 17-20. Think of Ideas Fest as something like TED Talks, says Heather Johnson, but instead of a short video, participants will spend three days in “intense conversations” with others to discuss solutions about real problems from a variety of viewpoints.

Heather Johnson

“What we really want to kind of create is this intellectual hub, this feeling of we are more than just the breweries and the restaurants and that we really do have meaningful, purpose-driven conversations here that are in the vein of trying to solve or at least come up with solutions for our problems, our own city’s problems, but even bigger problems like where we talk about democracy,” says Johnson, a principal for Asheville-based Kudzu Brands.

The event is the brainchild of UNC Asheville Vice Chancellor Kirk Swenson, who sees raising the profile of the liberal arts university as a side benefit of Ideas Fest. UNC Asheville has just more than 2,900 students, but has seen a decline in enrollment of about 25% over the last five years. Fees to attend cover the cost of holding the event, which is not hoping to make a profit.

Kirk Swenson

“Life today is complicated. We are surrounded by conflict and divisiveness, leading to overwhelming feelings of isolation and loneliness,” says Swenson, executive director of Ideas Fest, in a release. “Gathering at (Asheville Ideas Fest) encourages us to see things in new ways through thoughtful, intentional discussion and by compassionately sharing meaningful ideas from diverse perspectives,” says Swenson in a release.

Panel discussions begin Tuesday, June 18, with New York Times bestselling author, Emmy Award winner, and Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander, who helped launch a national conversation centered on book banning; James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef Katie Button will speak the same day about compensating service workers. Button’s best known restaurant is Curate, which she opened in Asheville in 2011.

Katie Button

Other speakers include theoretical physicist and bestselling author Dr. Michio Kaku, former mayor of Atlanta Keisha Lance Bottoms; co-anchor of PBS NewsHour Amna Nawaz; and Wiley Cash, a New York Times best-selling author who was born in Fayetteville and raised in Gastonia. Cash has also taught courses at UNC Asheville as an author in residence.

The event starts Monday, June 17, with a reception at Highland Brewing in Asheville. Leah Wong Ashburn, now the CEO of the brewery started by her father, will be another panelist.  

Most of the panel discussions will take place on the UNC Asheville campus, but there will be other events at the Grove Park Inn. Johnson says organizers have made time so that attendees can get out and explore Asheville, from going to restaurants and breweries to visiting the Blue Ridge Parkway or Nantahala or Pisgah national forests.

Who should consider attending?

Johnson says while some of those attending will be from western North Carolina, the first two Ideas Fests drew a regional audience. She expects some business people at the CEO or president level of businesses to attend because they may be in a better position to attend a four-day event. Discussions about how to help cities thrive should attract government planners and others.

Ideas Fest wants people who “are really open-minded” and interested in having “conversations, and not in a conflictive way. They want to hear what ideas are out there.”

Click here for more information and to register.

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