Trombone Shorty plays a sweet set at the Waterfront Blues Festival in 2019. The festival will be returning to downtown Portland this summer.

Image: Connor Meyer

Cue the fireworks, please: The Waterfront Blues Festival is officially headed back to downtown Portland for the July 4th weekend in 2022. 

The Blues Festival, long known as the largest of its kind west of the Mississippi River, is a tentpole event on Portland’s summer calendar. Pre-pandemic, upwards of 70,000 people would pack into Tom McCall Waterfront Park over the course of the event, which has drawn headliners including Chris Isaak, Joss Stone, and the Pimps of Joytime. 

The festival was canceled outright in 2020 and moved upriver to South Waterfront’s Lot at Zidell Yards in 2021 for a more curtailed and socially distant version. 

“Portland needs to move forward,” says Christina Fuller, who with her husband owns the event coordination company Fuller Events, which will coordinate all festival operations and logistics. “On July 4th weekend, the waterfront will be filled with people who no longer take these moments for granted. We know that the festival can serve as one of many catalysts.” 

Major outdoor events, which are huge economic drivers that also fill hotel rooms, restaurants, and bars, have been slower to return in Portland proper and in Oregon than in much of the rest of the country. The state had an outdoor mask mandate in place for gatherings of any size until November, when it became the last in the country to lift that requirement.  

“I had an interesting conversation with someone whose world focuses around tourism in Oregon,” says Debra Porta, the executive director of the Portland Pride Festival, which will again throw its joyous signature parade and sponsor a queer-themed film festival, though programming will be kept to a single weekend in mid-June, instead of spilling over into an organized weeklong party. “They mentioned how important it is and has been for the center of the city to have these events happen. And that becomes really, really clear when we weren’t there anymore.” 

Now, 2022 marks a return to form, with the Rose Festival, Pride Northwest, the Oregon Brewers Festival, and most recently the Waterfront Blues Festival all formally announcing that they’ll be back downtown this summer. 

Returning to downtown was both a gamble and by no means a guarantee, event organizers said. Vancouver’s waterfront beckons as an alternative locale; Porta says Pride Northwest considered whether Washington Park, a location on Portland’s East side or even the Portland International Raceway might work. 

“There is not really anything out there that matches what the waterfront has, not just space but electricity hookups, water, the infrastructure that you need to have,” says Porta. “And there is a very real conversation about recognizing what it means to have an LGBTQ+ event, born of visibility, right in the middle of the city. Pride is more than a party. It's a family reunion, our power in numbers and a huge visibility tool for our nonprofit organizations and our small businesses.” 

Art Larrance, the founder of the Oregon Brewers Festival, said he considered moving that signature event to the Washington County Fairgrounds in Hillsboro. Instead, he’ll be back downtown, but he’s trimmed back the festival by a day, is planning for fewer attendees, and is projecting a drop in the number of out-of-towners willing to travel for the event.  

(One thing that will stay the same? Permitting fees paid to the city. Larrance says he has requested some offsets and/or some direct aid, citing his upfront costs, lingering pandemic uncertainty, and the more intangible vote of confidence that bringing live events back to the still-limping downtown core represents. So far, he says he’s heard nothing back from City Hall.) 

But in the end, Fuller says, returning to the downtown waterfront for these and more events was both a conscious decision and a no-brainer: “It feels like the right time to invest in the heart of our city. It all starts with getting people back downtown. There are a million options of where you can produce events. This is our investment into bringing life to the downtown core.’ 

Announcements about the 2022 line-up will follow in a few weeks, she says, and ticket sales will open up in March. And festival organizers say they are ready to pivot as needed, should COVID persist in ways that no one is hoping for: “We will follow state and federal guidelines come the time of the festival,” Fuller says. “We will always err on the side of caution.” 

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