Freedom Fair: Financial Struggles Continue

Could this year’s Freedom Fair be the last? The annual 4th of July festival has struggled financially in recent years.

The City of Tacoma used to organize the 4th of July event on Ruston Way, then turned it over to the non-profit Tacoma Events Commission 32 years ago. Doug Miller began working at the commission 25 years ago and serves as its executive director.

He said the commission’s overall budget is $1 million, of which only about $330,000 is cash. The rest is in-kind contributions. The commission has raised about a third of the cash portion for this year.

Miller said fundraising is more difficult than ever before. He attributes this to the down economy and other factors.

Emerald Queen Casino, which is operated by Puyallup Tribe, was title sponsor for the event for a number of years. Last year, the tribe received a request to donate $50,000 for this sponsorship. Federal law required the tribe to demonstrate the amount of mentions in media advertisements it would receive for this donation. Miller said by the time affidavits from media outlets could be rounded up, it was past the deadline. Therefore, Freedom Fair did not meet the requirements of the federal law and thus the tribe ended up donating $10,000 based on what could be documented in advance.

“We do appreciate their longtime support of the event,” Miller said.

As of now, the 2012 festival does not have a title sponsor. Miller said he has tried unsuccessfully to find a new taker. “We have made it clear this is available,” he said. “We have been working for a year to get one lined up.”

Miller earns a salary of $5,000 a month. He said in the past, his pay has been higher and lower than that amount. He said he receives no benefits. Miller said he has not collected a paycheck in six months. The only other paid employee is Gary Grape, an independent, part-time contractor.

“Most groups that put on million-dollar events have a much bigger staff,” Miller said.

The city awards the contract for the event on a five-year cycle. Tacoma Events Commission is contracted to operate it through 2014.

The city provides a variety of in-kind support, in the form of police officers, trash collection, street closures and other services. Miller said there will be some reduction in the level of support this year, as the city struggles with its own budget problems.

Before Freedom Fair came about, the Independence Day celebration was essentially a fireworks show that just occurred at night. People would gather during the day in the vicinity of Old Town Dock. Many brought coolers full of beer, and the crowds sometimes got rowdy.

“Before it was a drunken beer bash,” Miler said. “We made this into a safe event where families could feel comfortable.”

He said Freedom Fair spread the crowd, which can top 100,000, along two miles of waterfront. The variety of events taking place throughout the day spaces out the arrival and departure times. Miller said future events could be scaled back, perhaps pushing the start time up to 2 p.m. But that is not his preference.

“This is strategically designed to function smoothly and efficiently,” he remarked. Having throngs of people arrive for fireworks, then leave would result in traffic jams and crowd control problems. “Every component of this event has an important function,” Miller said. “We would lose that if we just reduced it to being a fireworks show.”

Vendors brought in by the commission pay a fee. Restaurants, which are on private property, are not officially connected to the commission. Many of them operate outdoor beer gardens on July 4. Miller said most of those do not contribute to operating the event. “I wish we had more support from the restaurants. Not all are contributing equally in keeping the tradition going.”

The commission has come up with new ways to generate funds. One is the Tacoma Rainiers game on June 29. It will feature military exhibits around the concourse. Those who purchase tickets through the commission will generate funds for it.

An event at the airport in Gig Harbor, Wings and Wheels, is another. Last year it generated $30,000.

As was done last year, those attending Freedom Fair will be asked to voluntarily donate money when they arrive. Miller would like each person to put $5 in the collection jar.

While this year’s event will happen, Miller said he cannot say now that the commission can put on Freedom Fair in 2013.

“We are fighters,” he declared. “We will do everything we can to fight to finish to keep this tradition alive.”


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