Riverbend 2020 is now officially canceled and, if it happens in 2021, the event will not look anything like it has in the past, said Mickey McCamish, executive director of Friends of the Festival, which has produced the event since 1982.
"We need to move forward as an organization and as a city and we want to be a part of that," he said.
McCamish said the nonprofit organization is putting all of its energies and resources into rebranding the Riverfronts Nights summer concert series it also produces. Those shows are set for July 11, 18, 25, Aug. 1, 8 and 15.
That series will now be known as Chattanooga Unite: Healing and Uniting on the River, he said. It will expand its footprint and mission by focusing on local and regional musicians and including local nonprofits and restaurants, at least for this year.
The new name is a reference to Chattanooga Unite: A Tribute on the River, an event Friends of the Festival produced five years ago to honor the Fallen Five military personnel slain in Chattanooga on July 15, 2015.
Riverbend has been around for 39 years, but lost money over the last couple of years, including more than $2.3 million last year, because of smaller-than-usual crowds and higher-than-usual expenses for things such as bigger-name acts and a social media marketing campaign. The festival was set to take place last week but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
McCamish said the Friends board had hoped to move the festival first to July and then to sometime in October, but the realities of attracting 35,000-40,000 people, the number needed to make the event successful, during the current situation didn't seem feasible, he said.
"I don't think we will see any large festivals for awhile," he said.
With that in mind, McCamish said, the board decided to take the opportunity to take a hard look at its business model and find a way forward. He said it is too early to tell if the changes could lead to cuts in staffing, as the Chattanooga Unite shows are one-day events as opposed to the four-day festival. Past series in the Riverfront Nights series drew between 1,000 and 2,000 people.
"We will look at all elements," McCamish said.
Chattanooga Unite, he said, is a way to offer the city's first big celebration since the pandemic closed things down and a way to celebrate "summer, our community and our local economy."
"We need this," McCamish said.
Held in the past just at Ross's Landing, the event will expand this year to the green across Riverfront Parkway, where local nonprofits, artists and food vendors will be set up, as well as some programming for children and activities for pets such as a wading pool.
"We want to make the space available for local restaurants to set up, for a nominal fee [$30], which basically covers our costs," McCamish said.
Riverfront Parkway will remain open.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has ordered that events such as festivals and fairs can take place after June 30 as long as certain guidelines are met. McCamish said he has spoken with both Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and gotten tentative approval for the events, with the understanding things could change quickly as the city and county make week-to-week determinations on permitting live music events and gatherings.
"Everything is very much fluid," McCamish said.
Jonathan Susman, special events manager for the city, said he has had numerous conversations with McCamish and the Friends of the Festival staff about guidelines and requirements and will continue to do so.
"The mayor is obviously concerned about the increase in cases and is monitoring that data, and as we get closer to the event date we will determine if the event can happen," Susman said. "I am working closely with Friends of the Festival on an action plan for a really thoughtful layout and guidelines as we proceed."
McCamish added that the schedule of performers is still being completed.
The six Chattanooga Unite events will take place from 4-10 p.m., and McCamish said Friends of the Festival plans to have some kind of ticketed event in October.
"What it will be exactly, I don't know, but it will be in the fall, it will be a festival and it will be on the river, so it will be a fall river festival, but it will be a different-sized event," he said.
McCamish stressed that the Friends staff will continue to work with the city and county, as well as health officials and law enforcement, to ensure that the Chattanooga Unite events are safe.
"We will make announcements from the stage and we will have signage about practicing social distancing," he said. "We will have hand sanitizers everywhere and will have signage."
For anyone who purchased Riverbend wristbands, refunds are available. Credit card purchases made within the last 120 days will be automatically refunded and noted on credit card statements. Purchases made more than 120 days ago will be refunded by check and mailed to the address filed with the purchase. All refunds are expected to be processed by Aug. 31, 2020.
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Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.