Updated at 10:22 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, with more information.
After protests from the Riverbend Festival's executive director and a failed vote at the city council, Mayor Andy Berke killed an agreement with a company that planned to manage the 21st Century Waterfront Park.
Chattanooga Presents! President Carla Pritchard, who won a contract to manage the park in September, said she received an email from the city's purchasing department around 3:20 p.m. Friday, explaining the city had canceled the agreement. Instead, city employees will handle management of the park, which entails working with outside groups that want to bring events to Ross's Landing.
Pritchard was stunned. She doesn't think the city currently has the staff to do the job.
"There is a concern on a lot of people's parts," she said. "They saw this as a potential. There was a lot of concern voiced about what happens now. Who is going to be dedicating all this time to it? It's a big job and not to be taken lightly. We put a lot of thought into this over the course of these months.
"I'm assuming they have a plan. I don't know what it might be. I think it's just a shame. I'm disillusioned that the old-boy system seems to be so strong here in Chattanooga. It's an opportunity lost for the community in my mind. I wish nothing but the best for the waterfront."
Since 2008, Chattanooga has paid Friends of the Festival to manage the waterfront. But in July, the city solicited bids for a new contract. Friends of the Festival, Chattanooga Presents! and Nashville-based Event Logistics submitted proposals. After presentations, a committee of six city employees unanimously voted to award the two-year contract to Pritchard, even though her bill of $70,000 a year was $15,000 higher than that of Friends of the Festival, a nonprofit most known for organizing Riverbend Festival every year. Friends of the Festival's contract ended Dec. 31.
Pritchard oversees events in town like the Nightfall concert series, Pops on the River and the 3 Sisters Bluegrass Festival. In her application, she wrote, "we have experienced the frustration of the current management system" at the 21st Century Waterfront. If she won the contract, she said she would communicate better with organizers and market the area better — starting with a website where people could learn how to apply to rent the park.
Chip Baker, a Hamilton County commissioner and executive director of Friends of the Festival, appealed the day after the city's decision. He said the bid process was unfair on two grounds. First, he said the committee chose Pritchard because she lobbied to bring more events to the riverfront. Baker said that isn't technically what the city requested — the city simply asked for someone to manage the events that come to the park.
Second, Baker argued the process was tainted because Chattanooga Open Spaces Activation and Engagement Specialist Jonathan Susman sat on the panel. Susman happened to work for Chattanooga Presents! in 2014.
On Oct. 5, Chattanooga Purchasing Director Bonnie Woodward rejected the appeal, saying Susman has no personal interest in Chattanooga Presents! Baker appealed again. On Nov. 16, City Attorney Phil Noblett also rejected the appeal. (Baker contends city officials never fully addressed his complaint.)
Even with city hall awarding the contract to Pritchard, the city council still needed to approve it. There, the agreement hit a roadblock on Feb. 5 when the council deadlocked, 4-4. District 1 Councilman Chip Henderson, who voted against the contract, echoed Baker's complaint, that the process wasn't correct.
The council also learned that River City Co. President Kim White sat in on the presentations for the contract, although she did not cast a vote. White was listed as one of 11 references in Pritchard's proposal to the city. When he learned this, Baker argued White's presence was yet more proof of a tainted application. (Pritchard said White was only listed as a reference because Pritchard organizes Nightfall at Miller Plaza, owned by River City Co.; White said she and Pritchard have a business relationship but are not personal friends.)
District 6 Councilwoman Carol Berz abstained from voting Feb. 5. But on Tuesday, she asked to bring the issue back up on the agenda. She said she sat out the previous vote because of Baker's complaints about the process. But after talking with city hall officials, she felt comfortable voting on the issue. The council placed the item on the Feb. 26 agenda.
On Thursday night, Chattanooga Chief Operating Officer Maura Sullivan told the council they would not need to vote on the contract again. Berke told his administration to end the agreement with Pritchard and assign city employees to manage the waterfront. They plan to hire some staff, with Susman in charge.
"The City has always planned to move the waterfront management operations in-house once we expanded our Open Spaces Department, which was our goal by the end of the new contract," city hall spokeswoman Richel Albright wrote in an email. "The council's lack of action during the Feb. 5 vote simply expedited these plans."
After learning the news, Baker told the Times Free Press, "It's been a privilege to work with the city. We're here to help."
He was not as sanguine earlier in the week. On Wednesday, a day after Berz called for a new vote to approve Pritchard's contract, Baker said during an interview, "We've always had a great relationship with the city. To be treated like this, the way we were treated, was just not fair. It wasn't right. We put $100,000 into the waterfront. We paid, out of our own pockets, $100,000."
Indeed, Baker has long had a great relationship with city hall. Around 2008, before the city ever contracted out management of the the waterfront, Pritchard said she asked Mayor Ron Littlefield to consider such an arrangement. She said she gave him a written proposal, outlining what a manager would do and how it could help the city attract new events.
Littlefield said this week he doesn't remember the proposal from Pritchard. But in April 2008, the council approved an agreement for Friends of the Festival to manage the waterfront. According to an internal audit in 2012, the city didn't put the contract out for bid.
That same month, according to a follow-up audit, the city requested bids. It said it received two proposals and reached another agreement with Baker. (Pritchard said she had not heard of any requests for proposals for the contract until last year.)
Littlefield said Friends of the Festival did a great job with Riverbend Festival every year, the type of concert series you don't see in a lot of midsized cities these days. He saw Baker's team and Pritchard's team as geographically divided.
"We weren't competing with them on the Miller Park, Miller Plaza events," he said. "We saw that as their role. We really didn't see them as taking on the role that Friends of the Festival had been doing for 25 years."
In 2014, a task force of Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce President Bob Doak, Choo Choo Partners President Adam Kinsey and WTCI Host Alison Lebovitz released a report on the future of the city's entertainment. They wrote that business leaders wanted the city to attract more activity to the waterfront.
White echoed this complaint during an interview Friday, when she explained why city officials sided with Pritchard's proposal.
"A lot of energy has gone to the Southside," she said. "We think it's vital for there to be a lot of activity everywhere. That's why the 21st Century Waterfront was built: to have events on the river."
Even with Berke's decision, District 8 Councilman Anthony Byrd believes the issue will surface again. Byrd, who voted to approve Pritchard's contract earlier this month, believes "misconceptions and misunderstandings" sank the proposal. Chattanooga is a small town, he said, and Pritchard's connections to White and Susman do not make the contract unethical.
He said he will support Berke's decision. At the same time, he doesn't want to shut the door to a contractor.
"The city has a big job," Byrd said. "You kind of want those things to be in the hands of people who know how to do those jobs, know the trials and tribulations of those kind of things, those big concerts. We've got our hands full."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.