Alan Bernstein, owner of BB Riverboats in Newport, gets the question all the time: What’s going on with Tall Stacks?

“People ask, ‘When’s it coming back? What’s going on?’” says Bernstein of the signature riverboat heritage and music festival, which has drawn millions of people to the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky over the last 25 years. Bernstein has lined up riverboats for all six Tall Stacks going back to the first in 1988 to celebrate Cincinnati’s bicentennial.

This October marks seven years since the last Tall Stacks event in 2006, which brought 16 riverboats and more than 800,000 visitors to the riverfront for five days of music, food and fun.

But circumstances ranging from the recession, some bad weather and competing events have conspired to prevent pulling the trigger on the next Tall Stacks, says Fred Craig, chairman of the nonprofit Greater Cincinnati Tall Stacks Festival that runs the event.

“Our board is very emotionally engaged with the event,” says Craig,who is also vice president of downtown engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. “We want to make sure we put on a quality event…We want to make sure we put on the right kind of event, and don’t put on an event just because somebody says, ‘Let’s have another Tall Stacks.’”

To prevent Tall Stacks from becoming a political football, Craig says, the board decided it wouldn’t make a decision on when to schedule the next Tall Stacks until after the November election.

Because it takes 18 months to two years and something north of $10 million to put together Tall Stacks, Craig says the earliest it could return is 2015, when Cincinnati will host Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game and Covington will mark its bicentennial.

“It will take a tremendous amount of energy for the city to do it,” he says. “But with the Covington bicentennial and the All-Star Game, I think Tall Stacks would be a great fall event to do.”

Next October, Louisville will host its own riverboat festival, the Centennial Festival of Riverboats, recently expanded to six days on Oct.14-19, 2014. The focal point will be the 100th birthday on Oct. 18 of the Belle of Louisville, the oldest operating steamboat in the United States and a Louisville icon. Once known as the Avalon, the Belle called Cincinnati home from 1950 to 1962. It was acquired by what is now Louisville’s Metro government for $34,000 in 1963.

Craig says Tall Stacks decided it didn’t want to compete with Louisville’s festival.

“These boat operators work on a fairly narrow margin and being able to mobilize [boats] at a key time for two events wouldn’t have been fair to either one,” he says.

The last Tall Stacks generated economic activity estimated at nearly $50 million, according to a University of Cincinnati study, including about $800,000 in sales tax revenue for Hamilton County.

It cost about $10 million to put on the last Tall Stacks. Roughly 70 percent of the cost is covered through general admission ticket sales, while the remaining 30 percent comes from corporate sponsors.

Tall Stacks also has attracted a who’s who among Cincinnati’s corporation sponsors: Procter & Gamble Co., Fifth Third Bank, Duke Energy, Cincinnati Bell Inc. and Kroger among them. The next Tall Stacks will probably require a $12 million to $13 million budget, Craig says.

Dan Lincoln, president and CEO of the Cincinnati USA Conventions & Visitors Bureau, is excited about the prospect of Tall Stacks returning in two years. “It’s an iconic event and synonymous with Cincinnati’s riverboat heritage.”

It’s important, he says, because of its economic and psychological affect on the city.

“It’s transformative not only because it affects the way the outside world sees us but also because of the way we see ourselves,” he says.

Former Tall Stacks Chairman Leonard Weakley Jr., partner with the law firm Rendigs, Fry Kiely & Dennis, says Tall Stacks is by its nature a gamble.

Both the events Weakley chaired in 1995 and 1999 didn’t raise enough money to cover all expenses, he says.

“I believe you’ve got to take some risks to pull it off,” he says. “It will always be a bit of a gamble, but you’ve got to stick your neck out.”

Weakley, who has been off the Tall Stacks board since 2006, says the current board hasn’t been willing to take enough risks.

“Those that have followed on the board have been far more cautious. They want to make sure they have all the money raised ahead of time,” he says.

Craig says the all-volunteer board weighs a lot of different factors in deciding whether to hold Tall Stacks.

“It’s kind of a fickle event,” he says. “It has to be under the right circumstances. If we don’t have the ability to do it financially, it’s not worth doing a bad event. Or getting part way through, and not being able to conclude it.”

During the 2006 Tall Stacks, he says, eight inches of rain fell up river in Pittsburgh threatening to shut the event down because the river was too dangerous.

Last year, Tall Stacks decided not to compete with Cincinnati’s World Choir Games, which drew 326 choirs,with 15,000 participants from 64 countries, during two weeks in July. That event had a $10 million budget and generated a $73 million impact in the city, according to organizers.

“We talked with many of the sponsors who were available and many of them had made high levels of commitments to the World Choir Games,” Craig says. “The Choir Games were put on with such a short fuse, it really took everybody’s attention.”

As it turned out ,it was probably prudent Tall Stacks wasn’t held last year because of dry weather conditions.

”We couldn’t have had it if we wanted to because there wasn’t enough river depth in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys,” Craig says.

Another issue is the availability of boats. The Belle of Louisville has participated in all the previous Tall Stacks. But the Delta Queen, its former Cincinnati-based rival, has been unable to resume overnight riverboat tours because its exemption under federal safety laws expired in 2008. Although legislation aimed at restoring that exemption is before Congress, the boat is now operating as a floating hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The hurricanes in New Orleans have also taken a toll, damaging or destroying several other Tall Stacks boats. “We couldn’t have 16 boats today, because there aren’t 16 boats available,” Craig says.

Louisville is planning nine boats, including the Belle, for its festival next year. BB Riverboats’ Bernstein, who helped line up boats for the Louisville festival, says he’s ready to help organize the next Tall Stacks as well.

“I’m very disappointed it hasn’t happened [since 2006],” he says. “I understand our business is down from where it was, but business is getting better.”

Louisville expects to draw 300,000 visitors for its event. The Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau has forecast a $6 million economic impact.

Louisville businessman Neville Blakemore, chairman of the Centennial of Riverboats, says fundraising remains the biggest challenge.

“We want to raise $1.5 million,” he says. And through last month, the festival had secured half that, $753,000, in pledges and grants including $200,000 from the city of Louisville and major pledges from two long-standing local foundations, the Gheens Foundation and the Ogle Foundation. “We think that’s pretty good,” he says.

The next fundraising phase begins Oct. 9 when Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Louisville Mayor Greg Fisher kick off public ticket sales.

Craig says Louisville festival organizers expressed an interest in their event being endorsed as “Tall Stacks of Louisville,” but he says Tall Stacks belongs in Cincinnati.

“People have mentioned moving it to another city, wondering if the brand is worn out here,” he says.

“My attitude is why would I want to do that? I don’t think anybody’s got the kind of riverfront we have. There’s nothing like Tall Stacks, and it’s got to be done in Cincinnati. If the community will support it, it will get done.”