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Staff file photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press / The Riverbend Festival's Coca-Cola Stage is seen from Two North Shore on Thursday, June 11, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Riverbend's Wednesday announcement that the 2020 festival won't happen probably should not have come as a surprise to anyone, considering that many such large events are canceling around the country because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In making the announcement, Executive Director Mickey McCamish also said that Friends of the Festival would shift most of its energies and resources to Riverfront Nights, a free summer concert series it also produces. It will also produce the 4 Bridges Arts Festival in September and is planning a ticketed event in October.

It has rebranded Riverfront Nights as Chattanooga Unite: Healing and Uniting on the River, and McCamish said he hopes the series will help the city get back to some semblance of normalcy.

The plan is to feature local musicians and invite local restaurants, nonprofits and arts organizations to participate. It will also be kid- and pet-friendly, and McCamish sees it as a chance for the community to start getting out again.

"We need this as an organization and as a city," he said.

The first Chattanooga Unite is set for July 11, making it the first such event on the local calendar that might attract a large gathering of people, and Friends of the Festival board chair Mary Kilbride said either Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger or Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke could determine at any time whether it is unsafe to hold such a gathering.

"We are the first one out of the gate, and Mayor Berke has been very clear that he is looking at things day by day. He takes a very conservative approach on this, and we said that's fair, but we are proceeding as if it will happen."

It is a safe bet other producers of such events here and around the country will be watching not only to see if it happens, but also to watch how it comes off.

"I definitely will be watching to see how it goes and to see what I can maybe learn," said Chattanooga Presents President Carla Pritchard. Her organization produces the annual Nightfall summer series at Miller Plaza.

"We are all hoping it goes well."

Photo Gallery

Canceled Riverbend

 

Mike Dougher books shows at Songbirds, which opened its guitar museum almost a month ago and started hosting local musicians in the 600-seat Songbirds South venue three weekends ago. Dougher said the events have been getting about 50 to 60 people, "which is good. We don't make much money on that, but it's a start."

He said he has spoken to event planners and venue owners from Knoxville, Nashville, Birmingham and Atlanta, and he knows they will be watching Chattanooga Unite, as well.

"Oh yeah, they are watching us to see how we are doing. What is working and what isn't."

He also said the Songbirds staff is watching the crowd size and hopes to slowly allow for more people "if it feels right" as things move forward.

Like Friends of the Festival, Chattanooga Presents has had to adapt and rethink just about every aspect of how to present the shows. Unable to hold a live show, Pritchard found a way to present shows via Facebook Live with the first being held this past Friday.

She said, "It has certainly been a learning experience as I am not technically savvy, but I'm looking at this as maybe a new art form, if you will."

While things like smartphones and teleconferencing platforms make presenting such shows possible, they do not ensure that they will be done well. Things like lighting, sound quality and editing do make a difference, and Pritchard said she has had a crash course over the last couple of weeks.

"I've totally been around the block on that part of it. What venue works? What about lighting? What sounds good in a room live might not sound good through headphones."

Pritchard said she wanted to find the right place locally to do the recording, and several local organizations and facilities offered the use of their spaces. For the show last week, local opening act Smoky Nights recorded its set at the Mountain Arts Community Center on Signal Mountain, and headliner and Cajun fiddler Waylon Thibodeaux recorded his in a studio where he lives.

Nightfall emcee John Rawlston recorded his parts, including a trivia question on the Miller Plaza Stage, earlier in the week. Viewers watching the show live on Friday could answer questions and win.

Since 1982, Riverbend has been the city's largest festival, drawing as many as 40,000 to 50,000 people to the riverfront each night. A 2016 report found the festival brought $800,000 in city-county taxes and provided a $29.6 million economic boon.

Those numbers began declining in 2017, and organizers began looking for ways to change that trend.

"For more than 30 years, Riverbend has been a staple for our residents and visitors throughout the region," said Chattanooga Tourism Company President & CEO Barry White.

"Events such as Riverbend not only stimulate spending, they improve our lifestyle by providing cultural experiences and help define our community as a place to visit.

Riverbend Timeline

1982 - Bruce Storey and his Variety Services company hired to produce a new festival modeled after Spoleto Charleston Festival in South Carolina.

Walter Breland named chair of the first Board of Directors.

August 1982 - Riverbend debuts with a six-night event spread over several venues including a chamber music concert at the Tivoli, a hot-air balloon launched from Vine Street and a children’s film festival at the old Kirkman School near what is now AT&T Field. Some events were free and some were ticketed.

1983 - Admission pins were introduced for the first time.

1992 - Storey is replaced at director by Richard Brewer, co-founder of Variety Services.

1999 - Chip Baker is named the new executive director.

September 2019 - Friends of the Festival Board of Directors announce that changes are in store after 2016-18 festivals lost money. Among the changes were cutting the event from nine to four days, nearly doubling the price of admission from $45 to $80, eliminting corporate admission sales and requiring that wristbands be used to make all purchases. The event was also moved to late May instead of mid-June.

October 2019 - Chip Baker publicly announces his retirement after 20 years as executive director.

Mickey McCamish named executive director. Songbirds staff brought on to help produce the event and to book a lineup.

March 2020 - Conoravirus forces Riverbend to postpone.

June 2020 - McCamish announces that the 2020 festival was canceled. Friends of the Festival rebrands Riverfront Nights as Chattanooga Unite: Healing and Uniting on the River and puts its energies into producing the free six-show summer series starting July 11.

Others says its real benefit has been in bringing members of different communities together. It has billed itself as the region's family reunion, but many feel it lost its identity as the city and festival industry changed over the last decade.

"It was the ultimate multifaceted family reunion, and that is simply no longer the case," said a local radio personality and longtime supporter of the event, Jason Walker.

"I think it had to cancel this year, and this gives them a one-year reprieve to figure out what their purpose is," Walker said.

White also believes the cancellation this year gives organizers time to get community input.

"I am thrilled they are committed to improving the festival and have been seeking input from the community. We are missing having the event this year, however, it provides them additional time to seek guidance on how to create an even better festival next year," White said.

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

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