Planes, families and fireworks – all part of second career for Freedom Fair director

Organizing this week’s Fourth of July Freedom Fair in Tacoma means Gary Grape is working harder in retirement than he did in his career.

But in his first year in charge of the event, he says he’s had fun pulling together the vendors, entertainers and fireworks that families will get to enjoy Friday.

He spoke with The News Tribune about what Freedom Fair attendees can expect this year, and what it took to make the celebration happen.

Question: How is your involvement this year different than before?

Answer: It’s my first year at the helm. I’m the director of events, and I’m also the office manager. When I first started in 2000 I just handled the sign-ups for the vendors. Then I got worked into dealing with the vendors and entertainment. I was in charge of the tall ships in 2005. Somewhere along the line they voted me in as chairman of the board, 2007, 2008. Then they offered me a job where I would get paid. Now I’m a full-time worker earning part-time pay. I’m retired, and I’m OK with that.

Q: What’s the fireworks situation?

A: Fireworks are fireworks. It depends how much money you have, how many you can blow off in 25 minutes. We’re doing a little bit more this year. The fireworks display cost is $50,000.

Last year, the company in charge of placing the barge got their coordinates wrong and placed it 800 to 1,000 feet too far to the east. Some people couldn’t see it. I negotiated with the fireworks display company and said: “Hey, we had a lot of people that didn’t get to see the fullness of the fireworks show.” They said: “What we can do is add more shells this year.”

So they’re going to add about $4,000 worth of shells, in addition to what we paid for.

Q: What do you like about Freedom Fair?

A: I enjoy coordinating and putting on the event. I like taking two miles of waterfront and in one afternoon building a little city. In one day we’ve got 125,000 people down there shopping, listening to music. That’s the thrill I get, being able to build something like that. The day of, stepping back and watching the families and everyone have a good time. That’s what it’s all about for me.

Q: What experience do you bring to the table?

A: I was a Pierce County Public Works supervisor, in the Road Maintenance Division, for 13 years. I retired in 2000. How I got involved with the Tacoma Events Commission, I’m a musician as well. I play keyboards and a little bit of bass. My band, Majic Avenue, played at Freedom Fair back in the ‘90s. We were a classic rock group.

When I retired, I got bored after six months, so I called (former Freedom Fair director) Doug Miller and said: “Do you have anything for me to do?” And he certainly did.

Q: How is security at the event different this year?

A: Because of last year’s Boston bombing, Tacoma police had to tighten up security. Before the vendors could come in the section between Alder and McCarver and park their cars before 10 a.m. If they had to leave, they were able to leave.

They’re not able to do that anymore. There will be bomb-sniffing dogs at the entrance, sniffing every car that comes in. Once a car comes in, it has to stay until the festival is over. The general public can’t (park) in there anyway.

Q: What are the chances of getting military participation in the airshow again?

A: It’s looking better. The sequester is apparently over. If it wasn’t, I don’t think Seattle would get hydroplanes or Seafair would get the Blue Angels. A couple airshows in Oregon got military support.

Last year there was no military planes involved in any shows throughout the country. This year they loosened up a little bit. But Tacoma got turned down. We couldn’t even get a C-141 out of McChord to do a flyby.

The airshow we’re going to have is spectacular, but not as spectacular as the big Thunderbolt gets when it comes through and lights up the sky. We’re doing the best we can with what we can afford and what’s available. We really do want to get the military jets back.

Q: The same planes are scheduled to fly in the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Freedom Fest airshow and the Freedom Fair. Are they just going to fly straight from JBLM to the waterfront?

A: That’s the plan. JBLM came to us and said: “We’re going to do an airshow out here. Is there any way we could work together, and the same planes fly in our show?” We contracted with JBLM. (The planes) will probably have the opportunity to go to the Tacoma Narrows Airport and refuel before our show.

Q: What’s the money situation like? Will you ask attendees for donations this year?

A: It’s hard to raise enough money to cover all the expenses. We certainly hope we never have to put an admission on it. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. This is a suggested donation. We’re not pushing anyone to do it, but if you’ve got it, we’d sure appreciate it.

It costs a little over $140,000 cash to put this on. A lot of people think: “It’s a city event, why should I have to pay?” Most of the contributions from the city are in-kind. The garbage pickup, Tacoma Police Department, electrical power, all the sani-cans.

If you tally up all the in-kind donations, it runs close to $750,000. When you put everything together, it’s a $1 million event.

Q: One of your press releases this year said holding the event was a “leap of faith” financially. Is that still true?

A: When I wrote that press release I was nowhere near my target. Right now it looks like we can get by and pay our bills. I’m a little more faithful than I was. But am I going to sleep good yet? Not quite.

Q: How long do you plan to stick around? This sounds like a busy retirement.

A: I’m actually working harder now but I just enjoy doing it. I built roads for 30 years. Doing this is like a whole new career for me. As long as I can stay healthy, I’m 67 now, I can’t see quitting anytime soon.

Q: Anything else people should know about you or this year’s fair?

A: We’re looking forward to a great show again. We just need 80 degrees and sunny weather, and everything will be perfect. Besides myself, we have a tireless board of directors that work very hard in preparation of this event. On July 4, we have over 100 volunteers that give their time. Every year they just step up to the plate.