Tacoma leaders fight to keep Wintergrass

Wintergrass, the popular Tacoma bluegrass festival, is looking for greener pastures, city officials have learned.

Tacoma needs to do what it can to keep the festival, which draws thousands of people each year, City Councilwoman Julie Anderson told the city manager at a committee meeting Tuesday afternoon.

“We need to be aggressive here,” Mayor Bill Baarsma added. “We need to keep this at the center of our radar.”

Councilwoman Marilyn Strickland said the event was “one of the few times you see downtown really packed.”

Festival director Patrice O’Neill confirmed that Wintergrass has been in serious negotiations with the Hyatt Regency Bellevue for about two weeks. She expected organizers to make a decision about uprooting the festival, which celebrated its 16th year in February, by the end of next week.

Wintergrass saw attendance slip by about a quarter this year, O’Neill said.

She attributed some of that slump to the economy, but added that competition from Portland’s River City Bluegrass Festival, rising hotel prices and a changing climate at Hotel Murano, where the bulk of Wintergrass activity takes place, threatened the festival’s future.

“We lost enough people this year because of a combination of things, but (hotel) rates were a big one,” O’Neill said. “It’s like (patrons) reached a breaking point. ... It’s coming down to a choice between keeping the festival going somewhere, somehow or not.”

City Manager Eric Anderson told the Council members at Tuesday’s committee of the whole meeting that Tacoma was fighting hard to keep festival and had offered organizers “a small sum of money” to stay. But that might not be enough.

The Hyatt has put on the table special hotel rates that would cost patrons about a third less than what they pay at Hotel Murano, O’Neill said. The Bellevue facility also offers a bigger, less expensive space for Wintergrass to grow, she said.