If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

More than a festival


Northwest Tune-Up has been a catalyst for the Waterfront District, organizers say

Story and photos by Ian Haupt

Bellingham’s bike, music and beer festival returns for its second year July 14-16, and the organizers say they hope to double last year’s attendance and showcase Bellingham’s Waterfront District.

Northwest Tune-Up co-founders Eric Brown and Brandon Watts said in February they have made changes ahead of this year’s festival following survey feedback from 2022 attendees and are in a better place to organize and market the event. This time last year they said they weren’t even sure it would be able to happen. But now they have a full staff onboard and their inaugural event behind them.

Brown said this year’s festival will look a little different, with the festival ground condensed into Bellingham’s Waterfront District while its Makers Market, Expo area and Trackside Beer Garden will all be accessible to the public.

Nearly all festival activities, including pump track races, skills clinics, bike demos, vendors, food trucks and the beer garden, will operate out of the waterfront area. Wristbands will be needed to demo bikes and shuttles will transport mountain bikers to Galbraith and Chuckanut Mountain trails. Last year, mountain bike demos were held near the south entrance to Galbraith Mountain. The enduro races, part of the Cascadia Dirt Cup series, will still start from the south entrance. The waterfront will have one stage, with regional musical acts starting earlier in the day and national headliners playing later in the night. Twilight tickets will also be available for people wanting to see the headlining acts.

The festival surveyed last year’s attendees along with the musical acts, vendors and exhibitors, and Brown said many of the adjustments were in response to the suggestions they received along with the organizers own observations. Watts said opening up the exhibit area and Trackside to the general public was the biggest change.

The festival will have its own bigger beer garden area inside the ticketed area along with other new features, Brown said, like an ongoing, weekend-long art installation. Brown pointed out that many bike demos at a bike shop cost anywhere from $75-$100, while at the festival the $75 per day ticket allows attendees to demo multiple different bikes from different manufacturers throughout the day.

The festival will be partnering with local recreation nonprofits Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition (WMBC), Recreation Northwest, Shifting Gears and Whatcom Rowing Association with a goal to raise funds. Brown said they also hope to use the festival revenue to make additions to the existing waterfront development. The Waterfront District was at the center of their early vision, and is in the shape it’s in today largely due to work they’ve accomplished to get the festival off the ground.

“You can see what’s happened at the waterfront as a result of these conversations we started,” Watts said. “We feel like we’re already doing a lot of work for our mission and the idea of creating infrastructure for outdoor recreation and access. That’s all directly tied to this partnership with the that was born out of the idea of this festival.”

Brown, who is also WMBC’s executive director, and Watts, Freehub Magazine founder and publisher, met in 2009. Early on in their friendship they brought up the idea of a festival in Bellingham. As two mountain bike advocates embedded in the community and with Bellingham’s easy access to trails on Galbraith and Chuckanut mountains, they configured a festival centered around the mountain bike industry that also highlighted the local breweries and celebrated in the evening with large music acts. When scoping out a possible venue, they partnered with the Port of Bellingham to use the waterfront.

WMBC is a nonprofit focused on preserving and enhancing mountain bike trail access in Whatcom County through stewardship, education and advocacy, according to its website. Freehub Magazine is an independently owned and community driven quarterly mountain bike magazine.

In 2015, Georgia-Pacific West was demolished and the Port of Bellingham started development at the downtown waterfront. Brown and Watts met with Port of Bellingham executive director Rob Fix to get a tour of the property. With a tentative idea in mind, Brown and Watts ran their festival idea by Fix. A fellow mountain biker, Fix said he was interested, and they kept the conversation going over the years.

The City of Bellingham announced its signature event grant in December 2014, and Brown, Watts and a couple other local businesses pitched the idea of a mountain bike, beer and music festival in 2015. Brown and Watts said thankfully they lost that grant, because the waterfront area needed more work and development to host a festival.

The port approved WMBC’s development of the pump track in 2019, which grew to what it is now — multiple pump tracks, jump lines and a skills course — during the design process. Then the team assembled again with more businesses and key figures like music director Hunter Motto of Seattle music venue The Crocodile and former Downtown Bellingham Partnership director Nick Hartrich onboard. This time they won the grant, and the festival was supposed to be held in June 2020.

Brown said they canceled those plans in late-February 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Cases were rising in Europe while the U.S. had yet to implement shutdowns. It was postponed for the foreseeable future.

In the interim, Kulshan’s Trackside Beer Garden opened its 25,000-square-foot outdoor area on the south side of the Waterfront District in June 2021, and the container village followed shortly after.

In early 2022 Brown said they decided to make it happen, although still in the midst of the pandemic. With the festival scheduled for July 8-10, he said it wasn’t until spring 2022 when planning really began, and the team brought on staff and went full gas to make it happen.

Brown said the festival sold 3,600 tickets last year, with 800 people coming from outside their 50-mile tourism radius. They hope to double that this year.

“We’ve been working on this for awhile, I guess is what it comes down to,” Watts said. “We’re already facilitating a lot of our goals tied to our mission. And it’s already generating these pieces for the community. Which is the reason Eric and I live here and take part in this, and want to do this event, and want this event to be successful.”