The Bessie Smith Cultural Center is now at the center of discussions to potentially become the leading organization that will help save and manage the Bessie Smith Strut.
New talks are continuing Friday between the center, Friends of the Festival and community leaders to determine the feasibility of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center becoming the primary responsible organization for producing, managing and maintaining the event in its current location this year and in the future.
Moses Freeman, a former board member of Friends of the Festival and resident of the M.L. King Boulevard neighborhood, said the center's board of directors is giving serious consideration to approving increased involvement.
An anonymous donor has also surfaced, which Freeman said would allow the costs of insurance and event expenses to be covered this year.
Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield, said as long as the insurance issue can be resolved this year, things are looking pretty positive for the event to take place in June.
"There are no obstacles. The only issues that we had are the ones that are being addressed now, collaboratively. As long as the requirements are met, there is no issue. As long as they are able to get the insurance, it looks like everything will turn out positive," Beeland said.Â
Beeland also agreed that the center seems to be the most appropriate and fitting organization to have a festival in honor of Bessie Smith.
Getting through this year is one challenge, but sustaining the event for the future is also an immediate priority.
"There will be a need to charge an admission fee and plan for future struts to be sure the strut will be able to continue," Freeman said.
Asking the community to compromise on this significant change is part of what will be needed if the strut is to endure, according to Freeman.
The exact amount of any newly imposed admission fees have yet to be determined and will be decided after complete event costs have been evaluated, but Freeman said he thinks it will be somewhere in the $5-10 range.
"If the Bessie Smith Cultural Center takes on the responsibility, we think it would be appropriate for them to set that price," he said.
Other changes include increasing security, licensing and permitting vendors, and completely fencing the event area, as required by Littlefield in a recent memo. The fencing could add as much as $30,000, including installation, to the event's new operating budget, according to Freeman.
Friends of the Festival Executive Director Chip Baker said he had a meeting Thursday with BSCC leadership to discuss the mayor's conditions and how each item could realistically and logistically be addressed. Another meeting is set for Friday afternoon to go over insurance requirements.
Baker said they have yet to receive confirmation from their carrier whether the required insurance can be added this year and how much that would cost.
Friends of the Festival has carried its own insurance that has been limited to the organization's areas of responsibility at the strut, but it is not the newly required overall coverage requested by the mayor.
Beeland said for the entire history of the event, the strut has never been properly insured.
"Why that is I do not know," Beeland said.
The fact that communication and collaborative conversations have begun is a step in the right direction, according to Baker.
"Our feeling is if there is a will, there is a way, and right now, there is a will. We are trying to dissect every issue and see how it can be resolved. If we put all of our heads together, we're all pretty good at problem solving," Baker said.
An additional meeting is also set for Monday with the BSCC board of directors, and Freeman said he is asking everyone to try to work with a deadline of Tuesday to come up with an agreement to share with City Council members, who have asked community leaders to present a proposed solution at next week's regular agenda session.
"The mayor's office is in a cooperative mood to restore the strut to M.L. King Boulevard. All of the discussions are in the vain of solving problems instead of just saying we have problems," Freeman said.
Freeman said as soon as decisions are made early next week they will begin planning for a big crowd on the boulevard.
"I think the people of Chattanooga are really supportive of the strut. The strut will still be a success. The atmosphere will still be celebration and jubilation," he said.