published Thursday, April 12th, 2012

Insurance for Bessie Smith Strut still up in the air


by Cliff Hightower
Crowds fill M.L. King Boulevard during the Bessie Smith Strut in this file photo.
Crowds fill M.L. King Boulevard during the Bessie Smith Strut in this file photo.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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Even if liability insurance is found for the Bessie Smith Strut, there could be problems on who will pay for it and how.

"Someone's asking us to pay money for something," said Hugh Moore, board member of the Friends of Festival board, which runs Riverbend and has helped manage the Strut. "I don't know where that money's going to come from."

For years, the Strut's insurance has been covered by the city, which is self-insured, but one thing is certain, City Attorney Mike McMahan said, Chattanooga will not pursue or pay the full cost of liability insurance.

"We definitely will not," he said.

The scramble for finding insurance for the Strut comes just days after the executive committee of Friends of the Festival agreed the Strut would not be held at the Riverbend site. Mayor Ron Littlefield wanted to move the Strut to the riverfront, citing concerns of public safety and possible violence.

The liability insurance became a factor Tuesday when Friends of the Festival and McMahan said the entire Strut is not covered under the Friends of the Festival's insurance policy. Friends of the Festival only covers what they are responsible for such as staging and not food or beverages.

But McMahan has said threats to public safety have become so great, the city does not want to take on the risk.

Moore said Tuesday that talks are ongoing with insurance provider BB&T Huffaker & Trimble about liability insurance for the Strut.

Roger Smith, vice president and agency manager with BB&T, the person Moore said Friends has been dealing with over liability insurance, could not be reached for comment.

The Friends of the Festival board has not taken any action on whether to pay for the insurance or take responsibility for the Strut, Moore said, and it all boils down to one factor.

"It depends upon the cost," he said.

Chip Baker, executive director of Friends of the Festival, said no one has any clue how much the insurance would cost.

"That's the million-dollar question," he said.

McMahan said if Friends of the Festival found coverage and decided to buy it, Chattanooga would want to be named as an additional insured party. That probably would be a nominal administration cost, he said.

Along with the public safety factor, the city also faces constraints when it comes to liability insurance, McMahan said. The Strut is supposed to take place in two months and the city must put the insurance policy out for bid and get City Council approval.

And there is a smaller pool of insurers that cities can draw from for liability insurance, he said.

"We'd never get it done," he said.

That leaves Friends of the Festival to see if it can find the insurance. City officials have said Friends may be the only organization that can find the necessary coverage.

Baker said Wednesday that wasn't exactly correct. Other event-planning organizations could get the insurance, but Friends has an advantage because of the history and information it has with the Strut.

He said Friends needs to have an answer about the insurance as soon as possible because a lot of planning needs to be done if there is going to be a Bessie Smith Strut this year.

"The sooner, the better," he said. "Our main constraint is time."

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