By Matt Nagle
On July 4th, the Tacoma Events Commission (TEC) produced what is known as one of the best 4th of July shows in the world – the Tacoma Freedom Fair. This year was perhaps the biggest and best show yet, with upward of 125,000 people filling Ruston Way for two-and-a-half miles of music stages, vendors, street performers, food courts and an air show with Navy, Air Force and Marine aircraft taking part. The day ended with one of the biggest firework displays in the country.
Now, the City of Tacoma and Metro Parks Tacoma have issued a request for proposal (RFP) to provide event planning, coordination, and leadership for Tacoma’s annual 4thof July celebration, which will be held on July 4th along portions of Ruston Way and at Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park.
TEC has held up its part of the deal to produce Freedom Fair for well over 20 years. In the last few years, the City of Tacoma seems to make it more and more difficult and later and later to approve contracts with regard to 4th of July.
“Despite the city’s roadblocks, this year’s show was a giant success,” said TEC President and CEO Tony LaStella. “It’s next to impossible to raise money for a 4th of July event when the city does not approve it until June, a month prior to the event.”
Not just a fireworks show, Freedom Fair is a family event, air show and much more. A lot of work, much of it volunteer, goes into putting it all together, with the city’s only active part being to provide police officers. All of the infrastructure – everything – is done by a few paid employees and hundreds of volunteers over the years. LaStella said that the city has yet to recognize the accomplishments of the TEC, let alone thank the hundreds of volunteers over the years, but didn’t hesitate to advertise for new 4th of July organizers.
“We have known for some time that the festival needed to be changed,” LaStella said. “Closing down Ruston Way, the logistics make it extremely difficult and expensive. But instead of pushing the event further down Ruston Way toward the park, making it difficult to view the show and limiting the amount of crowds, why not expand it and bring it to downtown such as we did with Tall Ships and other events that were successful?”
LaStella suggested several novel ideas, like lighting fireworks over Thea Foss Waterway, shutting down Dock Street for family activities, food, inflatables and more. In addition, Tacoma now has a large number of breweries, even a district called Brewery Row. “We could shut down Murray Morgan bridge and make a large beer garden for the adults,” he said. “Moving so fast on a plan for 4th of July without public input certainly is not the American way. The city should take its time, meet with some individual groups, and come up with an event that’s best for the city.”
“The City recently put out the RFP to ensure that the event thrives well into the future,” said Tacoma City Council member Robert Thoms, who represents District 2, roughly all of the downtown core of Tacoma. “I’m eager to learn ideas about how the fair can be enhanced and include our entire community. Tacomas deserve and want the best possible event and it is a well-known and respected event. I would like to see the city pilot the event for the first two years if we change planners – it would allow us to learn where is the perfect location, best vendors and most access for the community. We must get the biggest bang for the buck and showcase our city and waterfront.”
LaStella said that TEC has “refused” to put in a bid on the RFP. “It is an absurd plan not in the best interest of either the community or local businesses and frankly, the TEC wants nothing to do with it,” he told the Tacoma Weekly. “The TEC is well prepared to carry on the proud tradition of the Tacoma Freedom Fair without the interference of the City or Metro Parks. Those entities need to only stay out of the way and let us do our job…a job we have done well for 40 years.”
LaStella also pointed out that the RFP contains no plan, or budget, for the air show. “Without the TEC, there will be no air show, as the TEC has the military contracts already in place and the deadline for submissions has past. In addition, the City and Metro Parks have geographically cut out the Veteran Park from the 2020 July 4th event, a park that has benefited more than 150 veteran non-profit organizations at the Tacoma Freedom Fair over the last 11 years.”
LaStella noted that news media, both regionally and nationally, have said that Freedom Fair is perhaps the second or third biggest in the country, what could be called a “signature event” that puts Tacoma on the map, filling hotel rooms and stimulating the economy. Subsequent to this year’s event, TEC received more than 1,000 responses from the community on how they loved the 2019 Tacoma Freedom Fair, especially the air show, LaStella said.
Forty years ago, the City of Tacoma created the TEC for the sole purpose of producing a July 4th event. Having broken away from the city in the 1980s, the TEC has continued to produce memorable events in the South Sound with the Tacoma Freedom Fair being its biggest production. LaStella said that despite the call for proposals, TEC is still committed to producing the 2020 Freedom Fair, as TEC holds the exclusive Freedom Fair trademark.
“The new plan of the TEC is to make the event bigger and better while providing more accessibility to the entire community,” he said. “Plans are already in place with the TEC to continue the event with private properties around town, including Ruston Way and the Downtown Tacoma community. These satellite venues around the city will reduce traffic to any one area while making the event more accessible to the entire community.”
TEC’s plans for 2020 include a musical concert with a headline entertainer, vendors, food courts, car show and multiple venues with entertainment scattered throughout the Tacoma area, all on private properties without the need for a city contract, LaStella said. The air show will return as well.
“All that the city needs to do is indicate their support and the military jets will be back. Plans are already implemented by the TEC to gain major corporate funding this fall so as to deliver a spectacular July 4th, 2020 Tacoma Freedom Fair to the people of Tacoma while helping local businesses to flourish by the endeavor.”