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Pittsburgh City Council wants to support two Juneteenth festivals amid criticism from organizer

City Council President Dan Lavelle stands at a lectern.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
City Council President Dan Lavelle introduced a bill Tuesday to provide $125,000 in support to a long-running Juneteenth festival. The funds are in addition to the money the city plans to spend on its own event.

Pittsburgh City Council is laying the groundwork to pay for two Juneteenth celebrations after leaders were criticized last week for not awarding a contract to a longtime festival organizer. A bill introduced Wednesday would award the Poise Foundation $125,000 to support a long-running Juneteenth festival organized by William “B” Marshall.

On Wednesday members also approved a $125,000 contract with Bounce Marketing & Events — the company Mayor Ed Gainey's office selected to organize a city-run Juneteenth event this year.

Councilor Khari Mosley described the Poise grant as an olive branch “in the spirit of goodwill … and healing” after last week’s tense, hours-long debate over who the city selected to organize its own Juneteenth.

After supporting Marshall’s event last year, the city opened up the process to allow more organizers to participate. Gainey's office said it wanted the city to have a Juneteenth event on par with the annual Independence Day Festival. Ultimately, a panel selected Bounce, a move that sparked controversy over how the city should mark the holiday.

The mayor’s office said it was important to proceed with a formal contract procurement process to select an organizer. The mayor has previously been criticized — by the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office among others — for skipping the procurement process in favor of so-called “sole source contracts,” where one vendor is deemed the only suitable partner.

A Gainey staffer told council last week that the office received similar criticism when it awarded Marshall a contract last year without allowing others to bid.

But that explanation did little if anything to win over upset community members. Marshall accused the city of attempting to “diminish” his long-standing festival by creating a competing event, and he's claimed the Juneteenth funds were promised to him in a resolution passed last year.

But the mayor’s office noted that the contract signed between the city and Marshall’s fiscal sponsor (the Poise Foundation) was for one-year with no guarantee for a second year.

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Mosley said although the city selected Bounce through the proper channels, finding money to also support Marshall’s event was essential.

“We thought it was important because of how contentious the issue has become,” Mosley said. “This is supposed to be a celebration.”

Mosley said he worked with Council President Dan Lavelle, Councilor Theresa Kail Smith and council's budget office to find additional federal pandemic aid earmarked for arts programming. The budget office said the money comes from the city’s $2 million spending plan for the arts, though the funds would be backfilled by other unencumbered money so that no other arts programming would be affected.

Lavelle introduced the bill and it was co-sponsored by council members Mosley, Bob Charland, Deb Gross, Erika Strassburger, Barb Warwick and Bobby Wilson.

But despite council's efforts to heal the wound, some dissent was still on view Wednesday.

Councilors Anthony Coghill and Theresa Kail Smith both voted “no” on the city’s contract with Bounce.

Coghill said the city should “abandon” organizing its own event this year, leaving Marshall’s event to be the only Juneteenth. Coghill argued the city has set itself up for failure by approving funding for a June event less than a month before.

Kail Smith said she was disappointed with how events unfolded over the last few weeks. She also suggested the city should reconsider whether it should be funding privately organized events at all.

“I don’t necessarily think we should be funding them with public dollars,” she said.

The Poise Foundation could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Mayor Ed Gainey, director of the Office of Management and Budget Jake Pawlak, and Bounce Marketing & Events founder Fantasy Zellars stand at a podium.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Mayor Ed Gainey, director of the Office of Management and Budget Jake Pawlak, and Bounce Marketing & Events founder Fantasy Zellars take questions at a press conference Wednesday.

Few details on city's Juneteenth event

Later Wednesday, Gainey administration staffers gathered alongside Bounce founder Fantasy Zellars to unveil details about the city’s Juneteenth celebration. Officials said the event would be called “Juneteenth FusionFest” and take place on June 29 at the Greenwood Smithfield building Downtown, formerly known as the Pitt Building.

But apart from that date and location information, officials gave scant details about what to expect. Zellars told reporters that no performers, artists or exhibitions had been confirmed as of Wednesday. She noted that a contract had not yet been signed.

But Zellars said attendees can expect an exhibit on Black history in Pittsburgh, food, live performances, an art gallery, kid-focused activities, a fashion show and health and wellness activities. She said the event would spotlight local artists, makers and vendors.

With less than a month to book the event, officials could not say whether the festival would be indoors or outdoors. Zellars said she expects to fill the festival with artists and vendors over the next few weeks.

“Due to the incredibly tight turn [around]… we will be making decisions in real time until the agenda is full,” Zellars said. She urged local vendors to apply to participate in the event as soon as possible.

“Let’s take this moment to … show the world what Pittsburgh is made of,” Zellars said.

And though the date does not conflict with the Juneteenth organized by Marshall, it is scheduled on the same day as Bike Pittsburgh’s Open Streets in the Hill District and North Side.

When asked about the controversy surrounding from the process that partnered the city with someone other than Marshall, Gainey said he would use the same formal contracting process in hosting future Juneteenth events.

“The new way forward will allow us to create a sustainable path for our celebration year after year,” Gainey said, stressing that the city should prioritize transparency in how city dollars are spent. “In order for us to be able to do it and be more transparent with taxpayer dollars, we had to own the event.”

Though this year’s event will be supported by federal pandemic aid, that relief program is set to expire. It’s unclear where the city will draw funds from for a Juneteenth event in 2025.

But officials said an annual city-organized Juneteenth is a priority for Gainey, and that funding it will be among his priorities during budget negotiations this fall.

“We'll be bringing forward a budget proposal for 2025 that includes funding for Juneteenth,” pledged Jake Pawlak, director of the city’s Office of Management and Budget. He added that council’s support of the event should instill confidence that the city will continue “to support this holiday” because “it’s something that all of us can agree on.”

Gainey said that the city should be a place where several more Juneteenth events can be held each year to celebrate the Black community.

“I hope that everyone here can come out and celebrate all the Juneteenths,” Gainey said.

Updated: May 29, 2024 at 2:49 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include more information about the city's upcoming Juneteenth event.
Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.