Well, it’s Riverbend time again in Chattanooga. There are great opportunities to hear a variety of musical acts, eat record numbers of food items on sticks, and engage in the finest people watching in town. While there are positive and negative effects from the festival, it is overall a great thing for the city and for the people who live here.
Last year, the city administration began doing something new with the traffic flow at night. Later in the evening, they blocked off Fourth Street from Georgia Avenue all the way to the onramp for Highway 27. It’s a terrible idea being done again for the second year. This means you can’t cross Fourth Street and you can’t turn left onto it from either direction. If you get off the highway, you can’t go north of Fourth. If you are parked north of Fourth, you must get on the highway and cross the river or circle the city. This would make sense if everyone who was downtown wanted to return to their homes in outlying suburbs or counties. That is not the case, however. Many of us live and or work downtown and need to be here in the evening, regardless of what may be happening on the riverfront.
We have, for years, been imploring people to move back into the city, to create a real community downtown. People have agreed and created a lot of residential areas in and around the business/tourist district. It’s a great example of diverse, mixed-use land. Now if those people want to get to or from their homes at night, they may need to circle a large area of downtown and take an extra 45 minutes or so.
Proponents of this idea will say it is only just a week (it’s nine days, actually) and that it helps with traffic flow. Again, that is only if you assume everyone is leaving downtown. Many people live here now and still more want to spend money at other downtown businesses after the festival ends.
Let’s just allow people to come and go outside of the festival gates as they please. I have a feeling the police officers posted up and down Fourth Street would rather be doing something else… and they should be allowed to do so.
* * *
One of the primary reasons Riverbend was started was to help promote economic development on the Riverfront. It worked. Our Riverfront is vibrant year round. Kids playing on the playground, people visiting the Riverboat, taking the aquarium cruise and walking, running, riding bikes, or just sitting and enjoying the natural beauty. The economic development has been nothing short of amazing. Anchored by the Aquarium; hotels, condominiums, apartments, retail stores, parking areas, and offices have all flourished just as intended. Other cities visit to see the miracle that happened on the river.
But it's time for a forward looking change.
Riverbend rules the city during those nine days each year commanding vital and expensive city resources and to Mr. Anderson's point, inconveniencing many residents that live downtown and in surrounding areas. Businesses are choked during this event, from traffic, to parking, to the presence of countless food vendors on the Riverbend site.
The festival is a vital tourist draw that creates countless buzz throughout the southeast in magazines, newspapers, and most importantly, the internet. It is a draw for people of all ages that live in our great city. It is clear that the success of Riverbend and the crowds it draws have become an important part of life in Chattanooga.
But downtown is vibrant now and the hotels and restaurants are full in the summer with or without Riverbend. We have other areas in the city that are in need of the same type of forward looking economic development planning that was once necessary for our beautiful riverfront. The Southside and Finley Stadium come to mind.
Suggestion...and I know this will be perceived as heresy, but, move the main stage to Finley Stadium. Keep all of the smaller stages where they are in effect downsizing the festival at the Riverfront while using it's enormous appeal to build other parts of the city. I realize Finley Stadium would have to take expensive measures to protect their field but festivals happen at stadiums regularly and I'm sure that whatever the cost, from carpeting the field with plywood to the clean up afterwards would be less than preparing the Riverfront for the main stage. The effect would be to draw scores of festival goers, tourists, and locals to other parts of our city that need the economic boost a festival could provide.