ASHEVILLE - When darkness falls this evening, benevolent ghosts will begin drifting through downtown streets, their quiet, vaporous figures a contrast to what hours earlier had been the raucous and high-pitched frenzy that is Bele Chere.
As the day ends, the legendary street party that thousands alternately love and love to hate will cease to exist as we know it, its spirit quieted by city budget numbers-crunchers and the perception that Bele Chere's original mission back in 1979 - to wake up a slumbering downtown - has been accomplished.
Overnight, the iconic festival will be frozen in time, morphed into a collection of memories lived over a span of 35 years, from its tiny beginnings with a lemonade stand and an ice-cream booth to the mega-production this weekend that has pulled a pulsating mass of humanity to the city center for Bele Chere's final performance.
The spirit - and spirits - of Bele Chere will live on, reflected in the lively storefronts, thriving businesses, constant foot traffic, al fresco dining, street performers and ever-changing touches of whimsy along the main corridors and in the hidden courtyards and green pockets of downtown - just as the visionaries in the late '70s and early '80s dreamed.
But in the noisy and exuberant Bele Chere fray Saturday afternoon as the clocked ticked toward the festival's last curtain call at 6 p.m. today, many were already mourning its demise.
"I wish it weren't ending, but it is, and I feel a sadness with it," said Asheville businessman and longtime Bele Chere volunteer Jim Daniels, who was chairman of the Asheville Revitalization Commission that launched the first Bele Chere in 1979 with $20,000 donated by four local banks.
For many years, before economic woes began infecting local government funding, the festival was self-sustaining and operated with an army of volunteers who stood in line to have a role in the biggest party of the year.
Daniels was always one of them, a beaming smile on his face as he roamed the crowded streets in an electric cart for hours on end, putting out the inevitable logistical fires as he delighted in witnessing the rebirth of the urban center.
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