WHAT A DIFFERENCE A BRIDGE MAKES. Before the Sundial Bridge, for most travelers Redding was a faceless blip on Interstate 5, a place to gas up between Sacramento and the Oregon border.
Then along came Santiago Calatrava, a rockstar Spanish architect commissioned to design a pedestrian bridge over the Sacramento River that would put this Northern California town of 90,000 on the map. The $23.5 million Sundial Bridge, financed in large part by the local McConnell Foundation, opened July 4, 2004, and immediately became a put-on-the-brakes attraction. Its impact on the city has been huge.
“The Sundial Bridge has been a tremendous experience for Redding,” says Kim Niemer, the city’s director of community services. “It has become one with Redding’s identity. People from all over the world put Redding on their itineraries just to see the bridge.”
Last year, as the iconic structure’s 10th anniversary approached, the city began laying plans for a celebration. Working with city officials, local businesses, the McConnell Foundation, Turtle Bay Exploration Park and Redding’s Civic Auditorium, Niemer and colleagues identified what they wanted to accomplish to mark the milestone. Foremost was a celebration that would be accessible to all segments of a community hard hit by the recent recession. At the same time, the commemoration had to be high-profile enough to draw media attention and visitors from out of town.
“We had to decide if we wanted animal balloons and face painting, or if we wanted to go big,” Niemer says.
They opted for big. The Celebrate 10 festival would encompass two weeks of public festivities commencing the weekend of the June 21 summer solstice, an annual occurrence that draws flocks of solstice groupies to a bridge with a 217-foot, cantilevered steel pylon that functions as a gnomon, making it in essence the world’s largest sundial. Events would conclude with a huge fireworks display on July 4. In between would be eight nights of free concerts at a riverside amphitheater, a beer festival, a celebration at the Civic food and entertainment event, plus bridge tours and historic exhibits at Turtle Bay Exploration Park. A Sundial Splash festival on the event’s second weekend would include kayak races and a family-friendly float trip on the Sacramento River.
The “big” element would be the headliner, Bandaloop, an Oakland-based vertical dance troupe that performs internationally on skyscrapers, bridges, billboards and natural landmarks. For its two performances at the Sundial Bridge, dancers would swing and twirl to live orchestral music while suspended by climbing ropes from the bridge’s highest points. Performances would take place at night, with theatrical lighting illuminating dancers and structure against a pitch-black sky.
When a grant that would have helped fund Celebrate 10 fell through, planners swung into fundraising mode, finding support from a variety of sources. “We raised $200,000, but there were a lot of city services involved, and the McConnell Foundation also contributed,” says Niemer, estimating the celebration’s total cost at $350,000.
Next came months of planning. The North State Symphony was tapped to provide musical accompaniment for the precisely choreographed Bandaloop performances. Island Creative of San Francisco was contracted for performance lighting and Tolar AVL of Chico for sound. Bethel Church and community volunteers scheduled flash mob gatherings on the bridge both evenings. Local restaurants were tagged to provide food concessions, while Usual Suspects, a local jazz band, provided pre-show entertainment. In a coincidental pat on the back for Redding, Bandaloop dancers were suspended in harnesses and rigging manufactured by locally based Yates Gear.
The big question mark going in: How many people would show up for the free Bandaloop performances? Planners estimated that a crowd of 3,000 could be handled comfortably, but even more showed up.
On the night of June 20, the 700 chairs set up in the main viewing areas started filling before 6 p.m. for a performance not set to begin until sunset almost three hours later. The surrounding open space was jammed with families who set up camp with blankets, picnics and personal chairs. It was hot—95 degrees—but no one seemed to mind. As showtime drew near, queues for the Italian-ice kiosk (and the restroom) lengthened.
It’s safe to say that few in the audience had seen anything like what came next. The bridge, an elegant, sculptural span made all the more sublime by theatrical lighting, became an aerial stage. Costumed dancers scampered like spiders up the stark white pylon, then swung improbably on ropes suspended from its stiletto-like tip. Their moves were part ballet, part modern dance, part acrobatics and altogether mesmerizing. Audience members were rapt; even children who had been bouncing around the lawn in the hours before sat stock-still, spellbound.
Celebrate 10’s eight-night music festival also was a hit, drawing about 5,000 people to a breezy waterfront venue that had been lightly used in the past. A donated fireworks show on June 28 added pizazz to the event on the lawn of the Civic Auditorium, which featured two concerts and a restaurant-row food concept. About 250 exuberant paddlers formed a flotilla for the Splash Festival.
The economic impact of the festival is difficult to estimate. “We know that our hotels were full,” Niemer says, “but it’s hard to determine how many were here for the festival as summer is our high season and hotels are pretty full then anyway.” Niemer points to one clear sign of success: “We’ve had many, many requests to make this festival an annual event.”
For planners, for Redding and for the public, going big clearly paid off.