Video: Safety trumps tradition in Bessie Smith Strut move

Video: Safety trumps tradition in Bessie Smith Strut move

March 31st, 2012 by Cliff Hightower and Barry Courter in News

Police Chief Bobby Dodd, Mayor Ron Littlefield and Chip Baker, executive director of Friends of the Festival, from left, answer questions from the Times Free Press about the changes to the Bessie Smith Strut at the newspaper's offices Friday.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

POLL: Do you agree with the decision to move the Bessie Smith Strut?

The Bessie Smith Strut - the blues, beer and barbecue street party that Chattanooga has known for three decades - is gone.

What's going to replace it is very much up in the air.

Mayor Ron Littlefield wants the event, or a different version of it, to move to the Riverbend Festival site on Riverfront Parkway.

Some members of the merchants association on M.L. King Boulevard, where the Strut has found a home for 31 years, want it right where it was, as it was.

And officials with Friends of the Festival, which runs Riverbend and the Strut, are open to almost any option.

Littlefield said police department leaders and the city attorney convinced him that safety issues and the difficulty in creating a safe atmosphere along M.L. King Boulevard were serious enough to relocate the Strut and to ask Riverbend officials to move it to Riverfront Parkway.

"The venue is the problem," said Police Chief Bobby Dodd. "There's no good way to control entrances and exits. We struggle with that every year."

Reaction to moving the Strut - set for June 11 - has been swift and, in many cases, angry. Some have said it's a slap in the face to Chattanooga's black community. Some complain that the decision was made without any input from that community.

"The drumbeat of violence and shootings have gotten everyone's attention," Littlefield said Friday in a meeting with Chattanooga Times Free Press editors and reporters. "We talk about, 'Oh, wasn't it nice in the past when we had the Strut and started the Strut and it brought everyone together?'

"Yeah, 30 years ago we were a very different community. We didn't have security like we do at the courthouse and City Hall. We would think it unusually risky to take down some of those security measures. I hate that."

Recent violence, including Christmas Eve shootings of nine people outside a Market Street club last year and the March 18 shooting of a 13-year-old girl by a 17-year-old male near Bennett Avenue spurred his decision, the mayor said.

But it's a decision that's been coming for years, he added.

Moving the Strut was "seriously considered" in 2004, the year after 20-year-old Tory Hardy was shot and killed offsite following the event, he said.

Littlefield said that ending the Strut was his decision and that he had discussed it with others before making a final choice.

"I had one-on-one conversations with [black] community leaders and City Council. I was impressed they acknowledged privately what we had to do here, but publicly I knew I was going to hear a different story."

The mayor consulted with City Attorney Mike McMahan and Dodd before making the decision.

"If we had another incident like the one we had on Christmas Day, what's folks from other parts of the world going to think of us then?" said Dodd, who also attended the meeting with the Times Free Press.


Chip Baker, executive director of Friends of the Festival, said he was told about the move on March 21, but he was asked not to mention it to anyone. He told his staff Wednesday as the story was breaking on media websites.

On Friday afternoon, officials with Friends of the Festival met with business owners in the M.L. King district and black community leaders to discuss options on how to proceed.

Andrew Jackson, owner of Jackson's Motors Service on M.L. King Boulevard, said after the meeting that merchants were upset at the way the decision was handled. They plan to ask the City Council to reverse the decision.

"Anything is reversible," he said.

Not so fast, said attorney McMahan. The mayor is the chief administrator of the city and has the responsibility of controlling the police department and how security is conducted across the city, he said, so the council's hands are basically tied.

"I don't think the council plays much of a role," McMahan said.

According to others who attended the merchants meeting, held at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, several options were discussed for the Strut, including:

• Moving everything to the Riverbend site on Riverfront Parkway;

• Holding a smaller version of the Strut with the four acts already booked by Riverbend at the venues on M.L. King Boulevard that are large enough;

• Organizing a block party with paid admission to help cover expenses such as security.

"The best suggestion in my mind was to let City Council close the streets and to have a paid admission street party," said Rich Heinsman, who co-owns Joe Friday's Alaskan Coffee House and O'Heiney's pub on Houston Street.

"No one wants to pay admission, but there has to be security, and that is a cost and has to be paid by somebody," he said.

Seth Champion, owner of Champy's on M.L. King Boulevard, said he felt better after the meeting, but there's still a lot of work to do and many details to work out.

"Reasonable people make reasonable solutions," he said.

He already had booked a band to play June 11, and customers had booked tables at his place.


In years past, although the Strut only runs for a few hours, it has attracted tens of thousands of music, beer and food lovers.

It's those numbers that worry city and police officials.

Police Capt. David Roddy, who is in charge of security for special events, said the department has more than 30 years' experience in how to secure the Riverbend site. Because it is a closed environment, his team can make adjustments about command post locations, scaffolding, entry and exit points and emergency medical service locations, he said.

The Strut's location is different, he said.

"We can't move buildings," he said. The many vacant lots along the site make it difficult to control entry and exit points.

Dodd said that, in recent years, Strut attendees have started running, or stampeding, seemingly at random. It's difficult for officers to predict or prevent it from happening.

"It happens about a dozen times a year, every year," he said. "You have people down there with babies and strollers. It's dangerous and scary."

The mayor said the new site is better for everyone.

"We're moving it to a safe place where we can manage it," he said.

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