The Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce will no longer produce two iconic Mid-Columbia summer events — the River of Fire Festival and Cool Desert Nights.
The chamber board voted to drop the two events after concluding the Fourth of July fireworks event and the vintage car show no longer align with its mission to support businesses.
The move has left the cities of Kennewick and Richland scrambling to keep the popular traditions going.
Lori Mattson, president and CEO of the chamber, told the Kennewick City Council this week the events were the chamber’s lowest-ranked offerings in a survey of members.
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The chamber is immediately dropping the July 4 celebration in Columbia Park that it’s managed for 20 years.
It will organize the Cool Desert Nights in 2018 to give it a year to develop programs to replace money it makes for the chamber. Cool Desert Nights marked its 24th year in June. The two-day event draws thousands of car and motorcycle lovers to Richland.
Mattson said chamber members join the business group for networking, advocacy, visibility and resources.
Check the “visibility” box for the fireworks and car shows but not the other categories, said Mattson.
“It’s a pretty complex event,” she said of River of Fire, noting the chamber’s staff isn’t equipped to run major community festivals. For many, River of Fire becomes a 16-hour work day.
Rising costs and a dwindling corps of volunteers have contributed to the problem.
The chamber is proud of the River of Fire, but it’s ready to step away, she told Kennewick leaders.
“We hope it continues its long tradition,” she said.
The move comes as Pasco officials wrestle with growing safety concerns this year about setting off fireworks at Gesa Stadium.
New housing developments have narrowed the safety zone around the stadium, prompted Fire Chief Bob Gear in March to question the future of Grand Old 4th at the stadium. City officials now say the show will go on with smaller fireworks, which don’t require as much of a buffer zone.
Kennewick City Manager Marie Mosley plans to meet with her colleagues from the neighboring cities to discuss a cooperative effort to preserve the other fireworks show over the Columbia River.
“We will do everything we possibly can to keep this going,” she said.
Richland City Manager Cindy Reents said the city is eager to preserve Cool Desert Nights, as well.
City leaders admitted they were caught off-guard by the chamber’s move. Canceling the fireworks show could have major implications for Kennewick, which bans personal fireworks. Richland allows some personal fireworks but nothing that shoots into the sky.
Before River of Fire was conceived 30-plus years ago, Kennewick officials recall that residents put on their own displays, often with catastrophic results.
“We were running all over the city,” said Kennewick Fire Chief Aaron Beasley. Property damage was rampant, as were injuries and even fatalities. Beasley fears residents will bring fireworks into the city and the problems will return if there’s no community fireworks show.
“The impact on public safety will be big,” he predicted.
Councilman Bob Parks, who is retiring from the council this year, called on the city to create a committee to explore options for continuing the River of Fire.
“I do feel like it was dropped in our lap,” he said. “This is a quality of life issue we need to keep going.”
The chamber’s decision to end its involvement in both events was a surprise, but not entirely unexpected.
Mattson said it reviewed its 17 events and programs as part of a strategic review of how to best use its limited resources.
It asked members to rate how each furthered its mission to promote local business. The Women in Business Conference emerged as its most popular offering. Cool Desert Nights was 16th and River of Fire was 17th.
It’s not the first time the regional chamber has attempted to separate from the River of Fire.
The chamber contracted with an event organizer from 2008 to 2010. It resumed control in 2012. The following year, it put out the word that it wanted out.
A radio station stepped up and organized the event in 2015 and 2016 but backed out last fall, leaving the chamber to organize the 2017 event.
It cost about $69,000 to organize the 2017 production, including $20,000 to rent and insure the river barge that serves as the firing zone and $30,000 for fireworks.
The event generated $80,000 in income from sponsorships, including HAPO credit union and AgriNorthwest this year, and the $8-a-car fee that fans pay to enter Kennewick’s Columbia Park.
It’s estimated that another 3,000 to 5,000 fans watch for free from the Pasco side.
It’s simply too much of a drain, Mattson said.
“It keeps us from doing the things we need to be doing.”