Tacoma’s Freedom Fair air show will be flying on half a tank July 4 unless more sponsors can be found.
Six civilian acts are scheduled, but organizers say they need another $15,000 to have enough aircraft for the traditional two-hour show.
Further putting a cloud over the show is the lack of military participation. Except for the possible flyover from a McChord Field-based C-17, no military aircraft will take part in the show along the city’s waterfront.
In years before 2013, military aircraft made up about half of the show.
While Freedom Fair currently has $70,000 in sponsors, ($25,000 of that from the Emerald Queen Casino) none of it is earmarked for the air show, said Gary Grape, director of events for the Tacoma Events Commission, the nonprofit that organizes the show.
That’s partly because an organizational restructuring of the event in 2013 put the airshow under a contracted organizer and changed how sponsorship money is used.
Another part of the problem is an overall decrease in corporate sponsorships, Grape said.
Previously, sponsorship was robust with acts such as Geico-funded acrobatic pilot Tim Weber. Geico no longer sponsors Weber.
In 2013, the air show and Gig Harbor Wings and Wheels, the airplane and car show July 5 at the Tacoma Narrows Airport, were contracted to Doug Fratoni.
Fratoni uses sponsorship money and Wings and Wheels ticket sales to cover the costs of bringing in civilian air acts for the air show.
So far, all of that sponsorship money is going to Wings and Wheels. Sponsorship of the Tacoma air show has dried up.
“There would be no Tacoma air show without Wings and Wheels,” Fratoni said.
Wings and Wheels grows every year, Fratoni said. It had 3,500 attendees in 2014. He renamed it Gig Harbor Wings and Wheels to reflect that community’s embracing of it.
“They love it,” Fratoni said.
Fratoni said the air show requires $25,000 just for the performers. Each act costs about $5,000.
He currently has just $9,000 in sponsorship funds. The title sponsor for Wings and Wheels, USAA, has provided $5,000. Other sponsors are providing $500 to $1,000.
The rest of the money for the booked acts will come out of Fratoni’s pocket, he said.
Fratoni has organized the air show since 2006, first as a volunteer. In 2013, he formed a limited liability company to put on the airshow with the blessing of the events commission.
That move made him ineligible for funding from Freedom Fair, unless sponsors specifically request funds be directed to the air show. Even then, only 15 percent can be diverted, Grape said.
“I have to rely on my own fundraising abilities,” Fratoni said. He started a GoFundMe campaign to hire a privately owned TA-4J Skyhawk jet trainer for the airshow. The fund currently has $100 in pledges.
“It doesn’t take that many people at $5 to make a donation,” Fratoni said.
His first year as a contractor, 2013, also was the first year that government sequestration put a hold on military participation. He used his own money to pay for more civilian acts to cover the loss of military support.
“I wanted to deliver to TEC and Tacoma. I think I delivered,” Fratoni said of the 2013 show. “But I ended up losing quite a bit of money.”
In 2014, a concurrent July 4 air show at Joint Base Lewis-McChord using the same Freedom Fair performers added enough revenue to cover the costs of a two-hour show along Ruston Way. JBLM’s airshow will not occur this year.
To secure help in getting more military participation, Grape sent 35 letters to U.S. senators, representatives and Pierce County legislators in February. Only the office of U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, responded.
Grape said the contracting of the air show with Fratoni made sense in 2013.
“The way we put this together with Fratoni is a win-win situation — as long as we have military participation,” Grape said. “They’re the headliners, and we’ve lost that, and that’s a killer.”
Freedom Fair attracts 125,000 to 200,000 each year, Grape said. Those figures do not take into account the thousands of residents and visitors who watch the festivities from their home and surrounding public areas.
Freedom Fair remains a free event, though donations are encouraged.
Fireworks for the fair alone cost $50,000, Grape said. The city of Tacoma provides almost $230,000 of in-kind costs that that include police, port-a-potties, garbage service, electricity and other services.
Grape said he hopes a big sponsor — or any sponsor — will step up before the June 20 deadline.
“We want to put on a two-hour air show,” he said. “And a spectacular two-hour air show.”
Fratoni said Freedom Fair and Wings and Wheels will suffer if the air show collapses.
“Once you stop an air show, it’s hard to bring it back,” Fratoni said.