Freedom to Celebrate

Published 7:44 pm Tuesday, May 10, 2022

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Those behind the scenes of Austin’s newest nonprofit relate the road to bringing back one of the area’s premiere celebrations


A step forward last year brought Austin closer to normal with a one-day Freedom Fest.

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This year, a newly formed nonprofit and the dedicated volunteers behind it are ready to make one giant stride forward to return to two days as it has been in the past.

Last month, the Austin Enhancement Group announced that it had taken over planning for the popular festival, which has been extremely limited during the span of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Going into this year, we said this year we’re going to do it up the way we wanted to do it last year and more like what people are used to,” said Mark Bliese, who along with his wife Taylor Bliese, Mary Anne Duran and Shawn McAlister form the board for the group. “We’ve gone above and beyond that.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the most havoc with Freedom Fest. It came on the heals of the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce’s decision to no longer plan for the Freedom Fest, but rather continuing to focus on the parade.

So, last year organizers finally tried to pick up where the Chamber left off.

“We couldn’t imagine not having a Fourth of July, so somebody was going to have to do it,” Taylor said.

As things began to cool somewhat on the COVID front, plans started rolling, but it wasn’t easy as the group still had to deal with the uncertainty of it all before suddenly lurching into motion.

“That was kind of a mad scramble,” Taylor said. “We wanted to do one, but it was kind of iffy on whether or not you could have events. All of a sudden you could, so everybody made a mad dash to pitch in, in conjunction with the city and some volunteers who like to help to throw something together and it worked out really well.”

The one-day event proved that people were ready for a return to Freedom Fest.

“The response was massive in that the crowds were huge and I think given what we had all gone through, nobody was in the mood to complain much,” Mark said. “They were happy to have something, happy to be out, happy it was happening. We rode that wave and had fun ourselves. It was nice to be out doing it.”

People attending the Freedom Festival’s two-day celebration this year can expect more food options. Herald file photo

Work to fortify an organizational nonprofit began almost immediately after last year’s festival. It boiled down to simple logistics. To plan something as big as a return to the original format required a structure that volunteering alone couldn’t provide.

“The event needs an organizational structure that it was going to lack without this,” Mark said. “It had to be an organizational structure at the Chamber because the Chamber itself had an organizational structure. But to a group of individuals … you are at the whim of those individuals.”

Planning ramped up late in the year and as things started to come together, the group began to realize the success it was already seeing.

Not only was it bringing on board old favorites — including original food vendors who had been to Freedom Fest in the past — it was going above and beyond.

“There were definitely things we reached that we didn’t think we were going to reach,” said Duran, who joined the group through an impromptu meeting with Mark saying it was,  “A chance encounter at Ace Hardware.”

Like everything to do with Freedom Fest so far, it’s been a good fit just as the AEG  has been a good fit.

People will relish the return to a normal festival with very little changing and a return of old favorites like the fishing contest among other events.  There will also be new food options available in the parking lot beneath Skinner’s Hill to hopefully decrease wait times while opening up new options.

However, the biggest change is quite possibly the most visible.

Instead of two nights of fireworks there will only be one night on July 4.

“It’s a fundraising issues that the people who are paying for the fireworks on the  Fourth are only willing to pay for the fireworks on the Fourth,” Mark said. “It’s a huge amount of money for our first year into this. Producing the funds for the extra night of fireworks is a tall order.”

However, all of them also agreed that two nights is very much on the table for consideration in the future.

The group has worked closely with the City of Austin to help organize this year’s event and so far it’s garnered support from everywhere.

It’s a tradition everybody is eager to get back to.

“There’s something home-towny about our Fourth of July,” Taylor said. “It adds so much value to our community and I couldn’t imagine a Fourth of July holiday where you kids can’t run around, get ice cream, go in a bouncy house and watch fireworks.”

It’s an excitement that permeates the AEG as much as the public.

“It’s exciting to be a part of a neat group of people that are dedicated to the Austin community,” McAlister said. “From the beginning, our goal was to provide a family-friendly festival that honors Austin’s  traditional Fourth of July celebration. It’s fun to be a part of this.”

For more information on this year’s festival, visit: