Friends of the Festival: No Strut at Riverbend

Friends of the Festival: No Strut at Riverbend

April 11th, 2012 by Cliff Hightower in News

People walk up and down M.L. King Boulevard during the Bessie Smith Strut in this file photo.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.


Mayor Ron Littlefield laid out a series of obligations that must be met before Chattanooga would consider allowing the Bessie Smith Strut to continue. Those obligations are:

• Some qualified organization must take responsibility.

• The site must be completely fenced or find some other mode to control access.

• The locations of vendors must be controlled and all those selling food, drink or other items must be properly licensed.

Source: City of Chattanooga

The future of the Bessie Smith Strut could come down to who is responsible for it.

Chip Baker, executive director for Friends of the Festival, said Tuesday his organization would take the lead in trying to find a way to hold the Strut on M.L. King Boulevard. But ultimately, if his organization cannot find a way to obtain liability insurance for the event, it could be in trouble.

"I cannot and will not put my organization at risk," Baker said.

The executive committee of the Friends of the Festival voted Monday that they would not hold a Bessie Smith Strut event at the Riverbend site this year. The City Council also voted 9-0 Tuesday to defer a resolution for a week to throw support behind Friends of the Festival and the M.L. King Merchants Association to hold the Strut on M.L. King Boulevard.

Baker said over the course of the week he will now try to find out if the Friends of the Festival can obtain liability insurance for the event.

He said it would depend upon if it could be obtained and how much the insurance would cost.

Baker along with representatives from the M.L. King Merchants Association spoke to the City Council's Legal and Legislative Committee for more than an hour Tuesday. The matter has been contentious for weeks after Mayor Ron Littlefield decided to try to move the Strut from M.L. King Boulevard to the Riverbend site.

POLL: Should the Strut be on M.L. King Boulevard?

He said it was because of safety concerns and rising violence within the community.

Councilman Peter Murphy, chairman of the Legal and Legislative Committee, said Tuesday during his committee meeting that the entire future of the Strut could rest in the hands of Friends of the Festival. He said it was the only organization with the experience and know-how to get such insurance.

"If you can't get insurance, we don't have a Strut," he said.

Littlefield could not be reached for comment Tuesday because he was traveling out of town. Before he left, he presented a memo to community leaders and the council on what needs to be addressed if the Strut happens on M.L. King Boulevard.

It included someone taking responsibility, licensing of vendors and fencing around the area.

"I do understand that people are meeting to try and find ways to redesign the Strut so that it can be salvaged and made safer in its present location," Littlefield wrote in the memo. "We are willing to work with the community."

Baker said he and others in the community have no problems with addressing the mayor's issues.

"If it needs to be tightened more, let's tighten it up," he said.

Moses Freeman, a resident of M.L. King Boulevard and the person acting as spokesman for the merchant's association, said the community was rallying and trying to address the issues. He said they were calling for volunteers to be ticket takers. He said on questions about beer permits, they would tell vendors to apply individually.

"We're willing to help put up that fence and charge an admission fee," he said.

But neither the merchants association nor Friends of the Festival would take sole ownership of the event during the meeting.

Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd said that was one of the big concerns she had with the event going forward.

"Who's going to put up fencing?" she asked. "Who's going to pay for that? Who is going to be responsible for wrist bands? I'm not hearing 'We'll step up and take responsibility.'"

Baker said he would hope to have answers on liability insurance by the end of the week. Because the M.L. King Merchants Association's nonprofit status went defunct almost five years ago, that organization cannot obtain insurance.

Baker said the executive committee voted against holding the event because the riverfront is not the appropriate place. He said the appropriate place is M.L. King Boulevard.

"We're not going to pretend to hold a Strut on the Riverbend site," he said.

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