To illustrate just how important the Riverbend Festival has been to Chattanooga over the last 30 years, Ken Hays, a partner with developers Kinsey Probasco Hays, points to the year that it almost fizzled.
In 2004, the city was in the middle of a three-year project to completely redo the riverfront area that serves as home to the festival. Rather than cancel or temporarily relocate the event, work on the $120 million 21st Century Waterfront Plan was stopped for four weeks.
"It was an unbelievable case of people working together," said Hays, who served as chief of staff for former Mayor Jon Kinsey in 1997-2001 and president of the RiverCity Company from 2000-2004. "To stop construction for a four-week time to allow Riverbend to go on was not easy."
This year's festival starts Friday, with headliners including Miranda Lambert, Alan Jackson and Huey Lewis and the News.
The festival was created in 1981 at a time when civic leaders were looking to draw people back to a dormant downtown.
"There was nothing downtown and no reason to come to downtown [after business hours]," said local attorney Hugh Moore, who joined the Friends of the Festival board in 1982. He has been a board member 22 times over the years and is serving his second nonconsecutive stint as president of the board.
"Chattanooga is revitalized," Moore said. "I always think Riverbend gets too little credit for that. I'm biased, but I do believe Riverbend played a role. Downtown has clearly changed, so I guess the first goal has been met."
That doesn't mean the festival is no longer used as a draw, however. Bob Doak, president of the Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the festival is part of the fabric that makes Chattanooga appealing to visitors and transplants.
"It's a world-class event that is well organized and well managed," he said. "Clearly, it has an impact on tourism. I think it's on the front page of our website right now.
"We also feature Riverbend as one of our key points in our visitor guide. One of the things we hear from tourists and others we are trying to attract is that there is a vitality of the downtown area."
The second original goal of the festival, according to Moore, was to provide a place where people from every neighborhood and surrounding community could comfortably gather and find something in common.
IF YOU GO
"It does bring people together," Moore said. "There are lots of different people there every night. We make every effort in the talent to try and have something for everybody."
The third goal was to promote local musicians. Moore said that is still important and points out that nearly a third of the 120 artists on this year's schedule are local.
For fans like Rusty Park-
hill, 36, Riverbend has become a rite of passage.
"The earliest good memory I have is from when I was in the eighth grade," he said. "My best friend and I went and saw The Georgia Satellites. It was a great show.
"I love Riverbend. It's a lot of fun. I think it changes as you grow older. I think I liked it more when I was younger because I went to pick up girls.
"I still like it though."
Notable Past Performers