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Kicked in the Wintergrass

Hotel Murano might boots the national music festival out of its slick digs

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Well, Tacoma, Wintergrass may be moving into the streets. After a year of change and challenges, Wintergrass organizers say their home of nearly 15 years, the Sheraton Hotel turned Hotel Murano, has changed in a way that can not accommodate the freedom required of Tacoma’s signature bluegrass festival. 

“The hotel has been such a part of who we are since the beginning,” says Patrice O’Neal, co-director. “It’s like Wintergrass and the Sheraton were one thing as far as our fans were concerned. There are so many things we could do. We could jam everywhere, going in the elevators, staying all night, doing whatever we wanted. And that has been a real signature part of what we do. The Sheraton has always been such an amazing partner for us, and we’ve been like a great big giant family.” 


But recent changes at the hotel, and throughout Tacoma, have made the freedom and revelry associated with Wintergrass into a receding possibility, says O’Neal. The changes began last year when the Sheraton began its transformation into acclaimed Hotel Murano. Hotel prices — not just at Murano, O’Neal stresses — began going up considerably. Those hikes, combined with rising gas prices and a suffering economy, have cut attendance and spending at the festival. Higher prices, combined with fewer earnings, has drained Wintergrass’s wallet. It’s not a crisis yet, says Wintergrass President Russ Pomerenk. But without a shift, it could become a problem. 


“We have about a third of our audience that comes from out of state, and we’ll have fewer people because of increased gas and airline prices,” says O’Neal. “We’re not unique. A lot of people are dealing with these issues. We have to look at who we are and how we do our thing.” 


At the core of the shift are changes at the Sheraton, now Murano. 

“There’s a real decided shift to the culture of the hotel,” says O’Neal, who emphasizes strongly that she appreciates and respects the changes taking place at the hotel. “If you go into the hotel at any point, it’s always beautiful and serene, no matter what is going on. Now, all of the group activities go on behind closed doors. That’s something the hotel wants to do at Wintergrass. That’s a much bigger deal for us than it is for the weavers, or the accountants. When we look at the heart and soul of our festival, and they say we can’t do things that have been a part of who we really are — if we can’t jam in the hallways — how do we maintain who we are and maintain that atmosphere that’s so important to our audience? How do we do that and still respect what the Murano is trying to do and become?”


O’Neal says there have been some uncomfortable discussions, and a decision to move toward changing the footprint of the festival to include more of the Broadway Center theaters, and more of downtown Tacoma — from the hallways and elevators to streets and stairs. 

“Instead of doing things in the hotel, we’ll turn the hotel into a place where people sleep, and make the town the place where the festival happens,” says O’Neal. “If we’re moving anywhere, we’re just moving our idea of what the festival is. If Wintergrass was not in Tacoma, it would not be anywhere, and that’s the truth.” 

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