Freedom Fair is free. That’s non-negotiable. It is one of the Tacoma festival’s founding values, and a reason it has become one of the biggest Fourth of July celebrations in the nation.
The festival, air show and fireworks draw about 100,000 people to Ruston Way’s waterfront every July 4, and most of us just waltz right in, happy that someone else is paying for our fun.
It was a nice business model while it lasted.
Now we have to re-think our role in it.
About three weeks before Freedom Fair, organizers say they’re $330,000 in the red. They say the 2012 show will go on, but to close the gap they are having to try some new tricks – and return to last year’s dicey dance with donation jars.
The City of Tacoma treated folks to the festival at the start, then turned it over to the Tacoma Events Commission 32 years ago. Despite its municipal-sounding name, the commission is a private nonprofit that stages fun from the Orting Pumpkin Fest to University Place Fest.
The greater-Tacoma area loves its fests, and, for the most part, they are modest and sustainable. But when you add war birds and explosives, things get pricier.
The cost of aviation fuel has risen. Good pyrotechnic crews don’t come cheap, and if they did, you probably wouldn’t want them near 100,000 people. Plus, some sectors of the economy still stink.
Pulling together the $1 million in cash and donations for Freedom Fair has been a stretch.
It’s not just Tacoma. Seattle was on the verge of losing its fireworks before Citizen Chef Tom Douglas stirred in a big dollop of his money and invited other wealthy donors to do the same a few years ago. You can pull that sort of thing off in Seattle.
In Tacoma, where we are short on millionaires, we pride ourselves on being more do-it-yourself. Sometimes we pull off great things, like the 2005 Tall Ships Festival, which the Tacoma Events Commission put on. Sometimes we don’t, like the 2008 Tall Ships Festival headed by David Doxtater. It ended up $500,000 in debt after many of the 300,000 or so attendees skipped donating to it.
Doug Miller, executive director of Tacoma Events Commission, built Freedom Fair’s business model to squeeze through tight spots, but this year has put on extra squeeze.
“We get 70 percent from in-kind donations,” he said.
Those include Tacoma police security, military support for the air show, ads on radio, television and in The News Tribune.
Revenue from concessions and booth rentals and money raised at events like Wings and Wheels and the Rainiers’ Military Appreciation Night go into the mix, he said. Last year, in its first year, Wings and Wheels took in $30,000.
But some longtime sponsors dropped out, said Jeff Davis, who joined as volunteer sales and marketing manager last week to try to raise the money the festival needs to break even. Already, he’s arranged a $17 Jiffy Lube coupon for those who pay the suggested donation.
He’d like to solve a problem that complicated the Emerald Queen Casino’s donation last year. Federal law requires the Puyallup Tribe to demonstrate the good value it receives for donations, said tribal spokesman John Weymer. It had pledged $50,000, but the law required proof of its mention in media be submitted before the festival. Those tear sheets from publications and affidavits from broadcasters didn’t exist at that point, Miller said.
He put in his best effort, and so did the tribe, he and Weymer agree. That best yielded the $10,000 that could be documented in advance.
That $40,000 loss is spilled lemonade now.
For this year’s event, Davis and Miller are looking for sponsors able to trade $5,000, $10,000, $50,000 for exposure at a 100,000-person event.
They also are looking for support from those 100,000 people. They are asking for donations of money and volunteer time, even hotel rooms for air show crews.
Last year, they set up stations where people could give a suggested donation of $2 per child, $5 per adult or $20 for the whole family. They know there are families who have no spare cash, and others who can afford $1. They hope they enjoy Freedom Fair as much as people with more resources.
But this year, they intend to be more efficient about asking those who can to give.
Count on being asked. When you make your decision, keep it in mind that we are getting the entertainment bargain that is Freedom Fair this year.
Next year, they say, maybe not.
IF YOU GO
2012 Tacoma Freedom Fair
When: June 29-July 4
Lead-up events: Tribute to America’s Military and Veterans, Tacoma Rainiers baseball game and fireworks (June 29, Cheney Stadium); Wings & Wheel air show and car show (July 1, Tacoma Narrows Airport).
The main event: Freedom Fair (July 4, Commencement Bay and the Ruston Way waterfront). Air shows, food, vendors, exhibits, entertainers, rides, fireworks show at dusk.
More information: Go online to www.freedomfair.com