published Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Chattanooga vendors suggest changes to Bessie Smith Strut hurt business (with video)

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  • Bessie Smith Strut goes on in Chattanooga despite rain earlier
    Despite heavy rain throughout the day Monday, thousands attended the annual Bessie Smith Strut on M.L. King Boulevard. The event, which was nearly canceled earlier this year, allowed attendees to enter by either paying $10 or showing a Riverbend pin.
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Did you like the changes to the Strut this year?

After months of uncertainty about its future, the prevailing attitude at the Bessie Smith Strut on Monday evening was one of "wait and see."

Attendees and vendors alike expressed mixed feelings about numerous changes this year, including ubiquitous perimeter fencing and thorough screening of guests and their bags at a trio of guarded entrances.

Some said these changes made the event feel safer, even if the traditionally free event now charged $10 to those without a Riverbend pin.

"Nothing is free," said Benny Whitten, 72, as he sat with his wife, Mary, on a sidewalk near the King Street entrance.

"This is what they should have done when they started out," Whitten added. "Some people don't want to pay, so they stay away. See how nice it is now?"

Better security was one of the primary reasons given earlier this spring when Riverbend's management group, Friends of the Festival, announced a decision to abide by a request to relocate the Strut.

After a vehement response from the community, festival Executive Director Chip Baker later said his organization would oversee a transition to a new organizer that would host the event in its traditional location.

That organization was the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, which enacted many of the changes this year in compliance with city leaders' demand for a more controlled environment.

As he walked up M.L. King, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said the new measures seemed to be working.

"Everybody hates an admission price, and I do, too, but it's the best way to control some of the problems that were threatening to cause the Strut to go away permanently," Littlefield said. "I think they've found a formula here that works very well."

However, many vendors suggested the changes hurt their business.

Strut could help Chattanooga's Bessie Smith Center

By Ansley Haman, Staff Writer

A board member for the African-American Museum and Performance Hall is optimistic that taking over the Bessie Smith Strut will help the Bessie Smith Cultural Center break even this year.

Last week, the nonprofit's board vice chairman, Elijah Cameron, told Hamilton County commissioners that the center -- with the museum located inside -- is working to become self-sustainable.

"We're picking up the Strut this year, so we're hoping to incur some funds from that," Cameron said last Wednesday. "We expect to look forward to making a profit."

The most recent IRS forms available show that the center lost $47,999 from July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2010. The returns show the center lost $43,055 on fundraising events during that period.

Cameron spoke to commissioners about the center's budget request, which asks the city and county for help with a new boiler and exterior maintenance. The center is seeking a total of $125,306 for projected operational expenses and $35,000 for a new boiler, which breaks down to $80,153 for each government.

Both governments have shared some of the building's costs since its inception, said Dan Thornton, head of the city's General Services Administration. A 2009 lease with the nonprofit center reduced the amount of public support it receives, he said.

"We pay rent to the city for the use of the building as a whole," Cameron said. "Before, the city actually provided us with maintenance folks."

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After alcohol sales were cut off at 8 p.m., Tower Construction beer vendor Calvin Ball said he thought he sold 33 percent fewer cans than last year. Despite a more expensive uniform price structure agreed to by all Strut beer vendors, Ball said he wouldn't be sure if his profits were down until he counted sales at the end of the evening.

"I definitely like the old rules better," Ball said as a thirsty straggler tried to haggle for one last can. "I got rid of what was in the cooler, but I didn't do very well."

Up the boulevard, West Palm Beach, Fla., native Gina Evans was set up on the Bessie Smith Cultural Center's front lawn to sell grilled chicken from her concession stand, Taste and Tell.

As one of several scattered afternoon rain showers swept briefly over her tent, Evans said she wished even more had been done to increase security this year.

"I do feel less comfortable and less safe here [than at Riverbend], even with the police," she said. "We just pray, keep going and hope for the best.

Some attendees said that they felt the police presence stronger than in years past.

"It's sucking the life out of it," one passer-by said into his phone while walking west up the boulevard. "They've got more cops than people strutting down here."

Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said he had about 130 officers on duty at the Strut.

Although that represented an increase over the 90 to 100 posted nightly at Riverbend, department spokesman Officer Nathan Hartwig said it was no more officers than the department fielded at last year's Strut.

"We're hoping more officers will cut down on any problems," Hartwig said. "There's no more than any other year. It just looks like it because the Strut is smaller."

Many attendees also were vocal about the sparseness of the crowd this year.

Instead of a shoulder-to-shoulder throng stretching for blocks, attendees remarked on the traditionally rare sight of empty asphalt.

"There is a lot of empty space," said McCallie School dean of student life Bobby Bires before adding that, given the speed of the management transition, the event was well organized.

"I think it's a great community effort to get this thing going at all," Bires said. "I just hope that if it's slow this year that doesn't mean they're going to give up on it."

Many expressed similar hopes that whatever wrinkles there were to this year's Strut, they likely would be ironed out with a full year to plan for next year.

"Let's wait and see, see how it turns out in the end," said Jeni Brown, as she and her husband, John Shoemaker, stood outside their music venue, JJ's Bohemia.

Marcus Flanagan, 42, was born on M.L. King Boulevard and has attended every Strut, even after moving to Nashville in the 1980s.

As the sun dipped toward the top of the Gold Building on West M.L. King Boulevard, Flanagan said he considered this year's Strut the best ever.

"It's safe, and it's a family environment," he said. "You don't have any youngsters walking around not making any purchases and creating havoc.

"Next year, I want it to be the exact same as it is now."

Staff writer Adam Poulisse contributed to this article.

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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