City to open up Freedom Fair bidding process

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By John Larson – jlarson@tacomaweekly.com

 

Citing declining attendance and lack of big-name entertainers, the city of Tacoma will issue a request for proposals (RFP) for organizations interested in staging Freedom Fair as of 2020.
Credit: Harald Hohendorf

Citing declining attendance and lack of big-name entertainers, the city of Tacoma will issue a request for proposals (RFP) for organizations interested in staging Freedom Fair as of 2020. Tacoma Events Commission (TEC), which has produced the 4thof July festival on the waterfront since 1984, is in the final year of its current contract with the city.

A letter dated April 1 was sent to City Manager Elizabeth Pauli and Mayor Victoria Woodards regarding the RFP. It was sent by Kim Bedier, venues and events director for the city. The letter explained how her department is collaborating with Metro Parks to issue the RFP. The letter indicates that the RFP will be distributed widely to professional event producers.

TEC Executive Director Gary Grape learned of the city’s plans to issue the RFP during a meeting last July with Woodards and Pauli.

He said no specific reason was given, although the existing contract is set to expire after the 2019 event. “It was probably done for fairness, to allow other organizations to apply,” he observed.

As a free event, it is impossible to determine how many attend Freedom Fair. According to Bedier’s letter, attendance has decreased from an estimated 150,000 in the 1990s to 70,000 in the past few years. Grape said Tacoma Police Department estimates the number of attendees. He said receipts from vendors have been up the last few years. Grape can observe the crowds as he rolls along Ruston Way on a golf cart on July 4. They have seemed smaller recently, which he attributes to the lack of military aircraft in the air show. With the announcement that they will return this year, Grape expects an increase in attendance. A document that identifies criteria for the RFP suggests the event needs “a headliner that will attract attendees from outside the area.”

The vast majority of musical acts that perform during the event each year are from the local area. Grape said a major touring artist was considered one year, but the idea was scrapped due to the high cost. “That is not in the cards right now.”

Grape said TEC plans to submit a bid for 2020. He said the organization’s knowledge of the event and the logistical challenges it poses make it an ideal candidate to continue. “There is no reason to think we would not be the frontrunner.”

Tony La Stella, president of the TEC Board, thinks Tacoma South Sound Sports Commission has an interest in staging the event. That organization recently merged with Travel Tacoma + Pierce County. Both are non-profit organizations. Dean Burke, who had been the leader of the commission, became president and CEO of the merged entity on Jan. 2. La Stella said he saw a television with Burke, who stated that Tacoma lacks a signature event. La Stella, who has been involved for 10 years and has been on the board for several years, considers Freedom Fair to be a signature event.

When contacted, Burke said his organization is not planning to bid for the RFP and he noted it does not organize such events. He said Pierce County has about 150 marquee events. “Freedom Fair is one of them.”

La Stella explained how TEC was created by the City Council. It began as a citizen committee, such as the one that organizes the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration. While that group is under the authority of the city, TEC became an independent, non-profit organization.

La Stella said the city has tried to insert more control into its contract with TEC, in manners he said could be in violation of laws regulating non-profits.

He said TEC owns the name of the event. The vendor list and donor list are also an asset owned by TEC, rather than the city. Any other group that may get this contract would have to start over at square one, he observed.

La Stella said the event broke even last year. He is hopeful it can turn a small profit in 2019.

La Stella claims the city has an anti-business agenda, from the mayor on down. He said ideas proposed by TEC to make the event more profitable and appealing to sponsors have been met with resistance.

“Community festivals throughout the year, especially during the summer, are activities that are family-friendly and so many Tacomans look forward to,” said City Councilmember Ryan Mello. “It is in everyone’s interest to ensure these are vibrant, accessible, safe and interesting festivals for a diverse audience. I am excited that the recently approved Tacoma Creates ballot measure will help in a big way to support and curate these kinds of family-friendly festivals. We will use some of those resources to support business districts, non-profits and community organizations who come together to make these highly-anticipated events successful and financially viable for the long-term.”

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