Friday, November 28, 2014 · 11:57 a.m.

Anonymous donor saves Bessie Smith Strut

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Friends of the Festival Executive Director Chip Baker as he addressed the Chattanooga City Council a couple of weeks ago with concerns about which organization would take over the Bessie Smith Strut. (Photo: Staff)

An anonymous donor has come to the rescue for the Bessie Smith Strut. 

During Tuesday night's City Council agenda session, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center announced it would take over responsibilities for the decades-old festival and hold it during the week of Riverbend.

Admission will be charged, and a protective fence will cordon off the area surrounding entrances to the festival grounds on M.L. King Boulevard.

In remarks to council members, Irvin Overton, chairman of the center, said his group had participated in "numerous meetings" with Friends of the Festival, city officials, members of the police department and the M.L. King Merchants Association to come to the compromise. 

"I cannot say enough about the cooperation and support that all these entities have given to make this strut one of the best of all time," Overton said. "Of course, none of this would have come to fruition without the support of an anonymous donor, and to that person I publicly say thanks for caring so much about the community."

Overton declined to reveal the amount of the donation but said it would be more than enough to cover costs of the fencing, along with insurance for the event. Overton said an Atlanta-based consultant specializing in crowd control recently visited and helped map out a plan.

"This time they really put the pencil to it," he said. "This is a really doable thing."

Although the insurance has not yet been approved, Overton said he was "99 percent sure" the coverage would be granted in time for the June 11 festival. 

Hours for the strut will be from 4:30 to 8 p.m., and admission will be granted for $5 in advance or $10 at the gate. Riverbend pins will also be honored. 

The conclusion comes one month after Mayor Ron Littlefield unexpectedly announced the blues and barbecue festival would be moved to the Riverfront because of safety concerns. The move triggered an eruption of controversy and community outcry, and an array of efforts followed to try to figure out a way to keep the event downtown.

Following Overton's remarks, council members applauded the efforts and cooperation of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center and other entities involved. 

"This is a perfect example of when cool heads work together in a commonsense manner," said Chairwoman Pam Ladd. "And the community did that. The community stepped forward and said, 'Let's sit down and look at this piece by piece and see what we can do.'"

Earlier in the day during the council's committee meetings, Councilwoman Deborah Scott lashed out over an email sent by Littlefield regarding requests for information on various budget and agenda items.

In the email, Littlefield said administrators and staff members had been "bombarded" with questions and inquires for special analysis and documentation, and he said it needed to end.

"This cannot continue," the email reads. "It is not the job of the council to run the day-to-day operations of the city. Some of you are asking questions that cannot be answered without undertaking a college class on how some things work."

Scott said there was "almost no communication" between the mayor's office and certain City Council members and vowed to continue requesting information on issues from the mayor's office even to the point of using Freedom of Information Act requests. 

"One of the things that I take very seriously is trying to know enough about topics to make a good decision," Scott said, following the session. "I can't walk in a room with a paragraph and then make a good decision about something that's going to cost a million, $2 million, [$5] or $3 million, or to even have a good concept of what a budget should look like without data. You wouldn't do it in the business sector, and I'm not doing it in this sector. I'm going to ask the people that have the answers."

Richard Beeland, spokesperson for Littlefield, said requests by Scott and others had "bogged down" city department heads and took "too much time," considering the scope of their duties.

"We've simply asked over all the years the mayor has been in office to funnel all these requests through the mayor's office, but yet some, like Councilwoman Scott, refuse to do that," Beeland said. "She's just wasting a lot of department heads and staff people's time with requests that are just frivolous: volumes of information that she's asking for, which is just in minutia that's not going to be producible for a council person."

Updated @ 6:52 a.m. to add more information.

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