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People attend the second night of the Riverbend Festival on Thursday, May 30, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Lionel Richie headlined the night.

Updated at 4:38 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019 with more information.

Will there be a Riverbend 2020 and, if so, where will it be held and what will it look like?

Those are among the questions being asked by the Friends of the Festival board of directors. Declining revenues beginning in 2016 forced the board to make big changes leading up to this year's event, and Riverbend 2019 "did not perform as expected," according to board Chairman Jay Jolley.

"The Friends of the Festival Board is evaluating a number of options on next steps as we look to 2020," he said in a statement Tuesday.

Changes to the 2019 festival included reducing the length of the event from 10 days to four, doing away with one of the five stages, moving the event from the second week of June to the end of May, and nearly doubling admission prices in order to spend more money on bigger-name headliners. They booked Keith Urban, Weezer, Macklemore and Lionel Richie.

According to Jolley, some changes were well received, but not all.

Leading up to the event, fans on social media noted the doubling of the admission price while cutting the number of days in half, for example.

First held in 1982, the festival is among the longest-running in the nation and has been touted as the community's annual reunion, drawing fans by the tens of thousands primarily from the tri-state area. 

But declining numbers and revenues, and a changing music festival environment around the country, forced the event to make major changes this year.

Fans have come to expect a "unique user experience," according to organizers of other such events. That can include everything from smaller, more intimate stages, such as those found at the Moon River Music Festival, which drew 11,000 people to Coolidge Park earlier this month, or a camping experience like that found at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival held every June in Manchester, Tennessee, which drew around 80,000 people in 2019.

Newer festivals such as Hangout in Gulf Shores, Alabama, or Forecastle in Louisville, Kentucky, also feature artisan foods and drink items and the most popular touring acts in the world. Tickets for those range from $125 to $350. Riverbend for many years was less than $35 per person and has long featured primarily classic rock and country acts. It has been described as having more of a carnival or county fair atmosphere, which proved popular with fans for many years.

Friends Executive Director Chip Baker referred to Jolley's written statement on the future of the festival, but just before this year's event he said: "Things have been evolving, and that's the word I would use, in this town musically over the last 10 years. We could see what was going on. As our community has evolved, people have told us they wanted more and they were willing to pay for it.

"So we needed a plan, and we came up with one, and we are sticking to it. It is so easy to stay in one direction. Change can be difficult, or it can be an opportunity, and that is how I see this. It is a lot of change all at once, but it is a transition to a big-time music festival."

Immediately after this year's festival he said: "The crowd seemed to enjoy themselves. The numbers were less, which we knew they would be. It made for a better environment. We made a lot of changes. We may not have accomplished 100% of everything we wanted to do, but we made tremendous strides. I think we answered the questions, or the call, if you will, of what the community wanted us to do, which was better, shorter and more experiences."

Even more changes are likely.

What those options are was not mentioned in the news release, and no one associated with the event was willing to go on the record, but according to sources with knowledge of the discussions, they likely could include ending the festival altogether, moving it to a new location, such as the Tennessee Riverpark on Amnicola Highway, and/or bringing in an outside organization such as AC Entertainment, which produces Bonnaroo and Moon River.

What has not been mentioned are how any changes might impact the other events that Friends of the Festival is involved with, such as the Riverfront Nights concert series at the 21st Century Waterfront or the recent appearance of the historic USS LST 325 military ship that docked at Ross's Landing earlier this month.

Jolley said in his statement that the board will be looking at its options and that no further statements would be made until a decision is made.

"These are challenging discussions, and we will have no further public comment until the Board has the opportunity to evaluate all options," he said. "We expect to conclude this process in the coming weeks."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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