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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Matthew Peay, with International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 140, works on spray painting social distancing guides on the lawn in front of the stage at the Tennessee Riverpark on Friday, July 10, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Chattanooga Unite Summer Music Series, formerly known as Riverfront Nights, begins today and will continue on July 18, 25, Aug. 8, 15 and 22.

COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of numerous live music events such as festivals around the country, and Chattanooga's Riverbend Festival was among those originally postponed and then canceled altogether.

The pandemic also forced the producers of the event, Friends of the Festival, to take a hard look at what they could do to not only produce their other event, Riverfront Nights, but also to stay in business altogether.

Things became further complicated when the city announced that no gatherings of more than 10 people would be allowed on city-owned property, meaning Riverfront Nights would not be able to take place at the 21st Century Waterfront as it had for nearly a decade.

Friends began looking for other places and found the county-owned Tennessee Riverpark on Amnicola Highway, and the event was rebranded — Chattanooga Unite: Healing and Uniting on the River — and while it didn't make money for the nonprofit group, it has kept the organization in business and become somewhat of a role model of other groups looking to safely present outdoor events.

"It has helped the community in several ways," Executive Director Mickey McCamish said.

"Monetarily, it has not been anywhere close to building the reserves like Riverbend does, but it does keep our doors open, and it helps us keep our skills sharp and keeps us occupied. And it has also enabled us to employ local musicians and put a little money into their pockets and the same with the food and beverage vendors. That was another element to our thinking."

Chattanooga Unite went well enough that McCamish said Friends began looking at new ways to use the shade, permanent bathrooms, ample parking and support from the county's parks and recreation department that the Riverpark afforded them, and they came up with the idea of presenting a family movie in the large field there.

Limited to 300 cars at $25 a car, it sold out in hours on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. He said the group is talking about offering more movies and looking at an event around Christmas, as well as a live concert at another venue in town.

Like a lot of event planners around the country, including the big boys like AEG and Live Nation, McCamish isn't sure when the bigger festivals — more than 2,500 people — will come back. Lollapalooza co-founder Marc Geiger told podcaster Bob Lefsetz it could be 2022 before we see music festivals again.

"I don't know when people will feel safe enough to come out in large numbers, but I don't think it will be anytime soon, so we are going to focus on smaller and new events," McCamish said. "My next goal is something in that large field with more people. We are looking at all options, all over town."

He said people seemed to appreciate being able to get out, but also safety measures, such as ambassadors walking through the crowd handing out masks and hand sanitizer.

The group also painted circles 10 feet apart on the grass and made regular announcements from the stage about maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask while going to the concession area or bathroom.

"Even the musicians were making the announcements, and it was very much along the lines of, 'We are all in this together, and if we want to keep doing these types of events, we need to take care of each other.'"

McCamish said several promoters and event planners have reached out to Friends asking about how the group managed the events. Among them is the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera. Executive Director Samantha Teter said the CSO began discussing ways to get the orchestra out and playing in April and had reached out to Friends, as well as other groups, gathering information.

Friends has left its portable stage at the Riverpark, and the CSO used it on Thursday night for a subscribers-only show and again on Friday. McCamish said several churches have asked about using it as well.

"We can't perform at the [city-owned] Tivoli, and we wanted to perform outdoors, where it is safer and the county has been very gracious and more than accommodating," Teter said. "I also spoke with [Director of Sales] Karen [Shostak] at Friends of the Festival and asked how it went for all their concerts."

She said the event on Friday was a trial run and that it was "very helpful that somebody did do it first. We wanted to know what worked and what didn't."

The CSO will present several shows over the next several months at a variety of locations, including Sept. 19 at White Oak Park Pavilion, Sept. 25-26 at the Collegedale Commons, Sept. 25-26 and Oct. 3-4 at the concourse at AT&T Field, and Oct. 22 at First Horizon Pavilion.

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

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Nick Lewis, with International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 140, works on hanging banners in front of the stage at the Tennessee Riverpark on Friday, July 10, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Chattanooga Unite Summer Music Series, formerly known as Riverfront Nights, begins today and will continue on July 18, 25, Aug. 8, 15 and 22.
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