Downtown was dying and very few people seemed to care. But a small group of visionaries decided to do something to revive it. It began with the architect Stroud Watson, who suggested a park in the center of the city at the intersection of Market and MLK. The Lyndhurst and Benwood Foundations furnished the funds to create Miller Park. When it was finished, the foundations gave it to the city.
Having done so, those same foundations then bought up the property on the opposite corner and built Miller Plaza. This time, rather than giving it to the city, they retained ownership and set up the Center City Corporation to run it. The idea was to create a dynamic center that would begin the process of re-animating downtown. Somebody suggested staging a series of free concerts, and in the summer of 1988, Brian McMasters organized a series of four shows featuring Taj Mahal, Karla Bonoff, Dave Mason, and local jazz keyboardist Butch Cornell in Miller Plaza. Nightfall was born.
McMasters left town after that first year, leaving his assistant Carlotta Cooper to take over and create the first summer-long series. Realizing that she needed help, she asked local musician John Rawlston to put together a committee of music-loving kindred spirits to help choose the acts for the series. Cooper left a year later, and Carla Pritchard was hired to coordinate the series and other downtown events for the newly created Chattanooga Downtown Partnership. As Rawlston put it, “The baby had been birthed, but Carla was the one who raised it.”
Pritchard retained the committee, and Nightfall continues to be a collective enterprise. Many other cities have had free concert series, but as far as anybody knows there isn’t another series that has lasted anywhere near as long as Nightfall. From the beginning Pritchard was given a free hand to develop it as she saw fit. She answers only to the audience—and the sponsors who have provided at least 50 percent of the funding. She is open to suggestions, not only from the programming committee, but from anyone in the community.
“ In my mind,” she said, “that’s what makes it a community effort, a community event, and a community gathering place where everyone is welcome.”
For more than 20 years, the series continued as a nonprofit community service provided by the River City Company, the parent company of the Chattanooga Downtown Partnership. But the River City Company is a real estate development company, and three years ago it decided to get out of the events business. Pritchard could have stayed with River City, but opted to leave and form her own for-profit company, Chattanooga Presents!
Chattanooga Presents! now produces Nightfall. River City (which owns Miller Plaza) gives Pritchard’s company the use of the space in return for a percentage of the profits. “Frankly, I enjoy the complete freedom we have to make it the program we feel it needs to be,” said Pritchard in an interview. “Over the years we’ve discovered what works. If I don’t feel (an act) is a good fit for us, I guess that’s where my experience is helpful because I do know what works on that stage in that kind of outdoor setting with our broad audience of all ages …You just develop a feel for what’s right.”
Of course with that freedom came the responsibility for making it pay. Back when it was a nonprofit enterprise, Nightfall only had to cover its costs. As it does with every start-up venture it underwrites, Lyndhurst funded Nightfall on a sliding scale for the first three years. After that, Nightfall was on its own. For the next 17 years, sponsorships, T-shirts, and wine, beer and food sales paid the bills, but for the past three years Pritchard has shouldered all of the risks alone.