The Riverbend Festival is one of Chattanooga's most beloved institutions. More than three decades in, the nine-day celebration brings more than 100 musical acts to a city that doesn't always get its fair share, raises a nice chunk of change for area charities, invigorates downtown businesses and gives Chattanoogans an opportunity to gather in a fun, family-friendly environment.
For all of the benefits that Riverbend brings to the Scenic City, however, there is plenty of room for improvement. A closer look at Friends of the Festival, the nonprofit group responsible for Riverbend, indicates that the organization has some explaining to do.
From preposterous attendance claims to the often-dated and subpar acts that headline the festival, to the seemingly excessive salary of the organization's director, the event's cost to taxpayers and the millions of dollars Friends of the Festival has sitting in the bank, it seems the public hasn't always gotten the full story.
Riverbend draws a primarily local audience, a reality borne out by the fact that most downtown hotels still had a number of reasonably priced rooms available for this weekend when the festival began on Friday. Still, that doesn't mean that Riverbend isn't a boon for downtown businesses. The festival may contribute as much as $30 million to the local economy, if several estimates are accurate.
The festival also hosts a more varied array of musical acts than almost any event its size. Over the course of Riverbend, it's possible to hear country, contemporary Christian, classic rock, alternative, R&B, bluegrass, pop, jazz, folk and funk music. At a time when iTunes and Pandora keep many music lovers confined within narrow genres, the festival certainly encourages discovery of, and appreciation for, many types of music.
Perhaps best of all, dozens of local nonprofits benefit from Riverbend. According to Riverbend's Public Relations Director Amy Marrow, more than $91,000 in festival admissions fees are donated to charity. In previous years, beneficiaries have included Habitat for Humanity, The Orange Grove Center and the Ronald McDonald House.
Riverbend remains a costly proposition to taxpayers. Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd estimated that Riverbend cost his department -- and, thus, taxpayers -- around $200,000 in 2012. This year, Friends of the Festival has agreed to pick up the tab for officers working inside the event, saving Chattanoogans a considerable amount. Taxpayers, however, are still on the hook for the cost of additional officers outside the event gates and patrolling downtown.
Despite the broad array of talented musicians from a variety of genres that play Riverbend, the fact remains that the festival's headliners do little to draw people to the event -- especially the 18- to 34-year-old demographic that is most likely to travel to see a concert. Part of the problem is nearby Bonnaroo, which requires most of its hundreds of acts to sign exclusivity clauses promising they won't perform within 300 miles for a period of 60 days before and after the festival. As a result, Riverbend can't host many acts that appeal to college-aged people and young adults. Another issue, however, is Riverbend's attempt to appeal to the masses with its headliners. By picking headlining artists that are bland enough to appeal to everybody, Riverbend rarely gets musicians that are compelling enough to excite anyone.
For years, Friends of the Festival has fed the media attendance estimates of more than 600,000 people over the nine-day event. Since Riverbend doesn't take tickets or have turnstiles, reporters have had to accept the attendance estimates. Many Riverbend attendees have long doubted those figures, guessing that attendance ranges from 25,000 to 45,000 a night, not the 65,000 or more that Friends of the Festival claims.
A look at Friends of the Festival's Form 990, the IRS paperwork submitted annually by nonprofits, sheds light on the subject. Taking the admissions and entry fee revenues the organization provided to the IRS in 2011, the most recently available year, Riverbend likely sold just more than 50,000 pins and fewer than 1,500 wristbands. (Pins allow admission to all nine nights, and wristbands amount to one-night passes.) If every person with a pin went every night, that amounts to barely 450,000 attendees -- a far cry from the 650,000 Friends of the Festival proclaims will attend Riverbend this year.
All things considered, a more realistic attendance figure for Riverbend is in the neighborhood of 300,000 people, or about 35,000 a night. Not that Friends of the Festival would ever admit it, since that would reduce the amount they could charge for advertising opportunities within the festival.
Friends of the Festival's 990 also exposes a few other facts the organization would probably prefer to keep quiet. For example, Chip Baker, the organization's executive director has a hefty salary that, over the past three years, has averaged more than $192,000. Kind of makes the $91,000 Riverbend donates to charity seem a bit puny, doesn't it?
Additionally, Friends of the Festival has $4 million in assets, including almost $3.4 million in cash sitting in a bank account. Last Sunday, the Times Free Press reported that Baker guaranteed that Riverbend entrance fees will increase next year to cover security costs. It seems odd that a nonprofit with more than a year's worth of reserves in the bank is so willing to stick its loyal customers with an admissions fee hike next year.
Despite all the good Riverbend does for the community and all of the joy that the festival brings to Chattanoogans, it appears that the events' coordinators don't always make the best decisions -- or always have the public's best interest at heart.
Shouldn't Riverbend's management be more honest with Chattanoogans about how many people attend the event and work to draw headliners that would attract more people to Riverbend?
In order to justify the hefty salaries that Friends of the Festival pays its top employees, shouldn't Riverbend be a bigger contributor to local charities?
Before demanding Riverbend attendees pay more, shouldn't Friends of the Festival look to its massive cash reserves to help underwrite its costs?
These issues will hang over Riverbend like the hot June haze until Friends of the Festival is either willing to address them or the festival collapses because they are ignored.