New July 4th event brings more fireworks than what are in the sky

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Freedom Fair producer Tacoma Events Commission cries foul, as Festivals Inc. takes over with T-Town Family Fourth

By Matt Nagle

matt@tacomaweekly.com

This summer, the 4th of July will be a brand new experience for Tacoma. After staging the annual Freedom Fair for nearly four decades, Tacoma Events Commission (TEC) is out and Festivals Inc. is in, prepped to bring its own brand of entertainment and fireworks to the Ruston Way waterfront and Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park. 

The event has a new name, too – “T-Town Family Fourth” – and according to its website (www.ttown4th.com) offers a slate of free activities and attractions: a fireworks show synchronized to music, two stages of entertainment, a children’s play area, beer gardens, craft cocktails and food trucks, vendors and more.

Last year, the City of Tacoma asked Metro Parks to partner in managing the city’s July 4th celebration in order to tap into Metro Parks’ expertise with organizing large public events and to incorporate Dune Peninsula into it. According to Metro Parks, a new event producer was brought on to revitalize the event and bring something new.

As stated in a Metro Parks news release, while the privately run Tacoma Events Commission (TEC) had operated Freedom Fair under contract with the City of Tacoma for many years, attendance has fallen. In its heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s, the festival attracted an estimated 150,000 people. That’s dropped to an estimated 70,000 in recent years. 

“The previous event producer has claimed that Freedom Fair is one of the biggest in the nation and is a tourism draw. Data provided by the regional tourism bureau shows hotel occupancy actually falls from 85-91 percent down to 40-61 percent on July 4th,” as stated in the release.

TEC’s contract was scheduled to expire in 2018, but the city gave the group a one-year extension because the city wanted to wait for the new Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park to open before contemplating changes. At the time, city officials told TEC of their intention to put the contract out for competitive bid in 2019 and issue a public request for proposals. As a result, TEC hosted last year’s event, and then its contract expired July 5, 2019.

Changing to a new producer also addresses the issue of TEC CEO and president Tony Chambers (whose “stage name” is La Stella, Italian for “the star”), executive director Gary Grape and other board members profiting from Freedom Fair. Grape had supplied the music elements, collecting the usual fees, and Chambers supplied the beer gardens for a profit, with the money going to him and not TEC. This begs the question of if TEC ends up having no 4th of July fireworks this year, what will become of the money that Freedom Fair already collected for 2020?

ACCUSATIONS OF A COVER UP

“The public was more than generous this year as they entered on to Ruston Way from side streets and parking areas,” 
Grape said after last year’s Freedom Fair. “Volunteers armed with buckets worked the crowds for our best year yet in collecting donations.” 

Tossing anywhere from $1 to $20 or more into donation buckets, the total amount collected gave TEC great hopes for a better event in 2020. As of now, with TEC having announced no real July 4th event this year, one has to question how that bucket-collected money for Freedom Fair will be distributed – and to question those kinds of methods to accept money from the public.

In the end, the city decided to go in another direction, citing unprofessionalism and growing weary of dealing with Grape and Chambers. The rift just got wider and hard feelings festered.

Upset with the changeover to Festivals Inc., Chambers and Grape publicly announced TEC’s non-participation the city’s request for proposals (RFP) issued this past June for Tacoma’s 2020 July 4th celebration. As stated in a press release sent to the media this past August: “Understand…the TEC has REFUSED to put in a bid on the RFP presented by Metro Parks and the City of Tacoma for their newly proposed Point Ruston July 4th event. 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.” 

Chambers and Grape allege that “a premeditated plan of collusion exists” among the City of Tacoma, Metro Parks and Travel Tacoma “to secretly get rid of the Freedom Fair without letting the public and business community know.” 

In a separate press release issued this past July, TEC leadership stated: “Rumors are the City and Metro Parks may be conspiring, holding alleged ‘secret meetings,’ to kill the Freedom Fair; the one event that has put Tacoma on the map. If this is true, then the open meeting state law has been violated and demands an investigation.”

The TEC website announces a separate 4th of July fireworks event at a “new location to be announced soon” with no further details given. As stated in TEC’s August press release, “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… 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.”

City fire investigator/inspector Lt. Kevin Hansen wrote via email that it is still too early for firework applications to be received and permits issued, so he couldn’t confirm at this time whether Western Display Fireworks will again work with TEC this year.

During the years that TEC was organizing Freedom Fair, an air show was one of the attractions. However, the city’s agreement with Festivals Inc. did not include an air show and wasn’t something that Festivals Inc. particularly wanted to do given that there was already so much to complete in creating a new July 4th event for Tacoma, according to Festivals Inc. owner Brett Gorrell. 

Instead, TEC appears to have secured airspace for its own airshow, Wings & Wheels to take place July 4 and July 5 at the Tacoma Narrows Airport. When asked to confirm whether the event has been officially booked, Sean McDermott, Planning and Public Works public information specialist for Pierce County, said that he hasn’t yet heard otherwise but that the event “comes together pretty late in the year normally.” 

TRAFFIC WATCH

T-Town Family Fourth will differ from previous Independence Day celebrations in numerous ways starting with its size, spanning from Dune Peninsula all the way to Les Davis Pier on Ruston Way. 

“The footprint the city gave us is much different from years past,” said Gorrell. “We’re just putting the design together, laying it out and making different decisions for traffic flow, entertainment…all the nuts and bolts. It’s a big task to just jump in and do this – this is a lot of shoreline.”

Whether or not Ruston Way will be closed has not yet been decided, as Gorrell said that Festivals Inc. staff are still in planning stages with the city and meetings with Ruston restaurants to make that decision. While Freedom Fair was going, it was hard on Ruston restaurants, not doing too well on July 4th unless they made the expense and time to sponsor a beer garden or some such attraction. 

Gorrell said that Festivals Inc. is working with the same fireworks company as Freedom Fair did, but this year the fireworks show is being repositioned so that the entire shoreline will be able to see it and with more view points than in the past. 

Festivals Inc. does have experience organizing such big events. The company founded Bite of Seattle in 1982, Taste of Tacoma in 1986, and Oktoberfest Northwest in 2006. Festivals Inc. also has been involved in Seafair, Bite of Oregon, NW Folklife Festival and Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, among others.

Among its tasks for T-Town Family Fourth, Festivals Inc. is working to mitigate traffic congestion at the event site. Plans are in the works to incorporate mass transit to carry people from point to point rather than drop-off at one stop. There will also be shuttle buses running from the Tacoma Dome and Tacoma Community College to the event grounds. 

“We’re working hard to increase busing and moving people to the event via Pierce Transit,” Gorrell said. “We’re hoping to create a pass-through bus lane and setting up stops at different areas of the event so that people who don’t want to walk, or who can’t walk, the whole way can take the bus to Ruston Way, stop at Cummings Park, get back on, go to Dune Peninsula, get back on… That’s our goal.”

Nevertheless, parking is bound to be an issue in Ruston, with the hills, streets and alleys sure to fill with cars. Taste of Tacoma has the same problem, with traffic backed up on Pearl Street to Highway 16. There are great logistic issues to putting on such a huge event as T-Town Family Fourth, with the inundation of 100,000 or more people from all areas of Tacoma coming to Point Ruston. This will include new people and cultures from all walks of life who normally don’t spend time there but now will discover an area that they’ll no doubt want to return to for the parks, restaurants and everything that Point Ruston has to offer. 

New crowds coming to Point Ruston en masse could bring potential problems with crowd control, and residents there should prepare themselves for an onslaught this year. For some, July 4th in Tacoma has been more of a day to get intoxicated rather than to celebrate American independence, with unruly people drinking too much and getting arrested. Several years back, police donned riot gear and shields to clear everyone out at the end of the night, marching down Ruston Way shoulder to shoulder. These types of incidents ultimately played a role in deterring families from attending Freedom Fair, contributing to lowering attendance numbers. 

Putting on an event the scale of T-Town Family Fourth is arguably a lot of work and with so much to take care of already across Tacoma, the city isn’t always adept at providing the help necessary. With 4thof July celebrations being so important to all communities in Tacoma, perhaps it’s time to think of alternative ideas to having everything in one location. 

For example, in order to promote downtown Tacoma, the city’s July 4th fireworks could be displayed over Thea Foss Waterway, with smaller displays in other areas of town like the Eastside and south Tacoma utilizing neighborhood parks to bring families together. Those who may not want to deal with big crowds and traffic and invest an entire holiday to see fireworks could gather up the kids and take an evening walk a few blocks to see a fireworks show. Cheney Stadium’s pre-4th event on July 3rdis one of the best in Pierce County and probably the hardest baseball ticket in America to get. While not a July 4th event, Fircrest’s National Night Out every August is one of the largest in the country, which shows that people enjoy getting together right in their own neighborhood. Other cities across America use 4th of July to unite communities and families, and often with no beer gardens that use alcohol as a draw. 

SHAKE DOWN YOUR MONEYMAKER

In existence since 1981, Freedom Fair once enjoyed reliable support from the Puyallup Tribe’s Emerald Queen Casino and its manager Frank Wright. At the event’s peak, the EQC was giving $60,000 annually in sponsorship, which has been reduced dramatically in recent years. At that time, and for more than 20 years, Tacoma promoter Stan Naccarato was collecting these funds, and a lot more, for Freedom Fair, and for other charities, at 20 percent commission. But Freedom Fair was his big money maker, with his commissions averaging about $20,000 a year. 

A consummate salesman, Naccarato wouldn’t hesitate to tell prospective givers, while telephoning from his apartment, that he was in the mayor’s office making calls by the mayor’s request. His tactics were effective though; he helped raise a lot of money for events that probably wouldn’t have survived with him.

Naccarato befriended the late Frank Warnke, a lobbyist for the Puyallup Tribe whose grandson, Ehren Flygare, is the tribe’s current lobbyist. In the 1990s, Warnke was making $100,000 a year from the tribe. Naccarato had him convinced that he was keeping Warnke’s job alive with the tribe because of his influence with the tribe, thus Warnke paid Naccarato $2,000 a month. Upon Warnke’s passing, Flygare took over as the tribe’s lobbyist and continued the tradition of paying Naccarato $2,000 a month out of Flygare’s $10,000 a month tribal salary. An associate of Flygare’s got wind of the money being paid to Naccarato and advised him to stop immediately, as he was potentially being extorted, and to seek advice from tribal attorneys. It’s unclear whether Flygare followed that advice or if the payments ceased or continued. By that point, Naccarato had been collecting $2,000 a month from Flygare for well over two years.

Naccarato was known for going overboard at times. He once approached Crime Stoppers with a $150,000 donation from the Emerald Queen Casino, but instead of his usual 20 percent commission, he wanted 50 percent this time. Crime Stoppers was just getting started in Tacoma at that time and they needed the money badly, but the board of directors refused the offer on the grounds that it wasn’t right to give someone a 50 percent commission on a charity fund. 

TEC is a non-profit made up of a board of directors and, like any non-profit, board members are the main money collectors. But it’s considered very poor taste and unprofessional for board members to accept a gratuity or commission from raising money for a non-profit. Taking part of what is given is practically unheard of in the fundraising business, but it seemed to be the norm with TEC.

Naccarato’s relationship with Freedom Fair began to sour when former Tacoma City Council member Doug Miller became TEC’s executive director. Miller was getting a bit greedy too, pulling about $100,000 a year salary from TEC for fundraising with claims that TEC was always broke. Ultimately, Naccarato and Miller split company and the EQC reduced its funding. However, EQC manager Wright used the casino’s donation to the fireworks show and other events as a public relations move to illustrate how the casino supports local charities – but mostly Wright was trying to protect the tribe’s gaming rights. Despite the drop-off in donations, Naccarato’s wife Jeannie, a TEC board member, was able to get close to $60,000 from Wright for the “Stan Naccarato Memorial Fireworks Extravaganza” at last year’s Freedom Fair.   

More conflicts involving Miller arose when he lobbied his fellow city council members to establish an ordinance to make Tacoma’s July 4th event organizer restricted to only non-profit organizations, in this case giving a monopoly to Freedom Fair. As Freedom Fair’s director, the conflict of interest was not lost on the public or local publications including New Takhoman publisher John Hathaway, a controversial character himself who broke the David Brame story. Hathaway called for the city to launch an investigation on Miller for violating the city’s ethics code. City council repealed the ordinance last year.

Around 2010, the TEC board asked Miller to bring the organization’s financial records to a board meeting. At the time, the board was meeting at the Parks Department commission’s meeting room. When Miller arrived, he said that all the info was in his briefcase but that his car was broken into the night before and the briefcase was stolen. Then in 2013, Miller purchased a very large and expensive home in north Tacoma and remodeled the basement, with questionable funding sources, to put the TEC offices in his home but he left TEC that same year.

The next year, Grape took over as executive director and effectively held everything together, including juggling difficult personalities on the board of TEC. Grape came to TEC in 2000 as a volunteer after he retired from Pierce County Public Works in road maintenance. 

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