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Pittsburgh is set to fund 2 Juneteenth events after controversy over dueling celebrations

Pittsburgh has come up with a way to defuse the controversy over its dueling Juneteenth celebrations: Give money to both.

The city is now ready to help fund two separate Juneteenth events next month, after a longtime event organizer last week condemned Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration for initially proposing to direct money to another event, leaving him without city support to let.

William “B” Marshall has been organizing a high-profile Juneteenth festival in the city for more than a decade.

Last year he received $125,000 from the city to support his efforts. At the time, the city authorized up to $250,000 for up to two years, but city officials ultimately signed a contract with Marshall for half the amount to cover just costs during last year’s event.

Gainey’s chief of staff, Jake Wheatley, said other event organizers contacted the city to apply for funding after the city provided money for Marshall’s Juneteenth.

The government then launched a standard competitive bidding process to select an event organizer for a city-sponsored Juneteenth celebration this year.

Marshall and his supporters criticized the administration last week for choosing Pittsburgh-based Bounce Marketing and Events instead of its long-standing Juneteenth celebration.

The City Council voted Wednesday to provide Bounce with $125,000, but also introduced legislation to authorize the same amount to the POISE Foundation, which partners with Marshall.

The measure was sponsored by Council President R. Daniel Lavelle, D-Hill, with seven other members listed as co-sponsors. Missing was Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, D-West End.

That measure will appear again on the council agenda next week for a preliminary vote. The Council is expected to hold a final vote next week, meaning the measure will likely be approved just a few days before Marshall’s three-day celebration begins on June 14.

Marshall said his event Downtown will go on as planned — and it would even if the city didn’t provide funding.

“We are very grateful that they are trying to do something to remedy the situation,” Marshall said.

Gainey on Wednesday announced details of the first city-sponsored Juneteenth event, which will be held June 29 in and around the Greenwood Plan building on Smithfield Street in downtown Pittsburgh.

Fantasy Zellars, president and CEO of Bounce, called the event a “celebration of Pittsburgh’s rich black culture.”


Related:

• Dueling in Pittsburgh Juneteenth celebrations spark controversy and criticism of Gainey


The event, called Juneteenth Fusion Fest, will feature a “variety of attractions” including performances, a spoken word experience, an art gallery, activities for children, a walking tour and a makers market. She said the emphasis will be on hiring local artists and vendors.

Zellars said her organization’s three decades of experience in organizing events — including Gainey’s inauguration and events for big-name brands like Twitter and Amazon and celebrities like Beyonce — will make for a successful Juneteenth event.

Some council members expressed disapproval Wednesday of the administration’s handling of its process, which has sown confusion and division among Pittsburghers and council members alike.

Councilman Anthony Coghill, D-Beechview, said he thought Marshall’s event should be the only one to receive funding for a Juneteenth commemoration this year. Coghill said he wanted to “discontinue the government’s festivities for this year.”

“The way it was done is something that resonates heavily with me,” said Coghill, who criticized the government’s decision to choose a supplier other than Marshall. “No doubt this has been a distraction for him, I’m sure.”

Kail-Smith also voted against giving money to Bounce. She said she felt uncomfortable with the process and wasn’t sure how she would vote on the measure to give Marshall money when it comes before the council in the next two weeks.

Council ultimately approved giving Bounce $125,000, with Coghill and Kail-Smith voting against the measure. Councilwoman Deb Gross, D-Highland Park, was not present for the vote.

Gainey defended his administration’s actions during a press conference on Wednesday. He said the formal bidding process was intended to improve transparency and ensure all event organizers had the opportunity to apply.

The mayor thanked Marshall “for elevating Juneteenth,” but said he wanted to ensure the city would celebrate its own celebration for years to come — complete with city funding and a transparent selection process.

It was unclear where the city will find funding for future celebrations, as the money going to both Bounce and Marshall this year comes from American Rescue Plan Act money that will no longer be available after this year.

Jake Pawlak, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said the city plans to include funding in the 2025 budget.

Julia Felton is a TribLive reporter covering Pittsburgh City Hall and other news in and around Pittsburgh. She is a graduate of La Roche University and joined the Trib in 2020. She can be reached at [email protected].

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