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Tampa's parade power a boon for small businesses


Besides the Bucs, Ybor City and Cuban sandwiches, add this to the list of Tampa trademarks: big parades, and lots of them.

Call us the Parade Capital of Florida.

City Times checked, and Tampa bests other cities, including St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Orlando and Miami, in the number of annual parades and the hundreds of thousands of people who come to them all.

The biggest, of course, is Saturday's Gasparilla, which draws 500,000 a year. (About 750,000 revelers came the last time we hosted the Super Bowl.)

But don't forget others, such as the Martin Luther King Jr. parade, the St. Patrick's Day parade or the Outback Bowl.

In all, City Hall counts eight throughout the year. They draw about 1 million people to lawn chairs and Tampa's sidewalks to be entertained by marching bands and waving costumed characters.

But behind all the frivolity, businesses that cater to local parade crowds have created somewhat of a small industry. Their profit margins rely on the floats, casually thrown beads, the funnel cakes and corn dogs, especially in a year like this.

• • •

Events like the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates create business for a handful of local companies in two ways.

First, thousands of spectators are hungry, thirsty (even, believe it or not, for drinks other than alcohol) and in the mood to buy pirate-themed novelties.

Second, krewe members need costumes, boots, hats, accessories, beads to throw and floats to ride on. Some even turn to seasoned interior designers to help decorate their homes in a swashbuckling theme.

Chick Adams and her husband, Bruce, said the profits at their business, Festive Floats of Florida in Tampa, ride on the parade routes here. They design and build floats for about 125 parades each year, from Tallahassee to Key West. But most of their annual income comes during Gasparilla season, which includes last month's children's parade, Pirate Fest and the Illuminated Knight Parade on Feb. 14.

"We have about 63 floats in these three parades," Chick said.

They also sell items such as petal paper to the do-it-yourselfer. Chick said their next biggest customer is the Edison Festival of Light parade in Fort Myers.

Then there's Bead Barn by Features in South Tampa, which sells more than a quarter million strands of beads annually, mostly in January and February.

This time of year is pretty much the crux of the business, said Jacque Villano, one of about 15 employees there, working overtime to prepare Gasparilla beads. "We do what we have to, to take care of customers," she said.

• • •

The success of float builders and beadmakers hinges on local parades, yes, but whether the festive events have broad financial impact for the city is another question.

At least one expert's answer is no.

"It's a party," said University of South Florida economist Philip Porter. "And parties don't bring in money."

The return on a party comes through goodwill said Porter, who will buy the beer and host out-of-town family and friends during the parade Saturday.

When a krewe member spends money on beads and floats it stays here, Porter said, adding that impact studies show local money is offset by what would have happened anyway. In other words, that same krewe member would have spent the money going to a local restaurant or putting it in a local bank.

The impact on the city is negligible, he said.

Maybe so, but the impact for some entrepreneurs is meaningful.

Take Dixie Middlebrook of Seffner, who was working at a Tampa flower shop in 1971 when she made her first Gasparilla wreath — the pirate-themed decorations that adorn many South Tampa homes this time of year.

The 70-year-old sells her wreaths, centerpieces and other goods for $85 to $175 through the Missing Piece at Britton Plaza. The creations feature parrots or pirates' heads made from coconuts, ostrich feathers or twisting vines, and lots of beads, Middlebrook said. "Always, always lots of beads."

Mark Enoch, 47, of Tampa has been in charge of providing the food, nonalcoholic beverages and novelty booths at Gasparilla and the annual children's parade for nearly a decade. That means setting up about 30 food booths and another 10 for novelty beads.

Many are staffed by nonprofit groups in exchange for a percentage of the sales. Those booths serve nearly 50 items, including pizza, empanadas, turkey legs, and fried shrimp and clams.

"Corn dogs are probably the most popular item out there," Enoch said.

His company, Special Events Foods, also employs vendors who walk around selling everything from beads to cotton candy to drinks.

Enoch has done as many as 50 events a year, including the Gasparilla Art Show and the Grand Prix in St. Petersburg. Pirate Fest may be one of his most lucrative. "If the weather's good, it can be the top show of the year for me."

If not for Tampa's parades, seamstress Karen Shuey would likely have another job. Shuey, 50, started sewing costumes for krewes 11 years ago, while working in a bridal shop. An acquaintance of the owner needed a costume for Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley. That was Shuey's first costume: a historically accurate Elizabethan ensemble with a lace-up bodice, blouse and overskirt.

Within two months, word of Shuey's work had spread, new clients engaged her services, and she quit her job at the bridal shop. She is now the exclusive seamstress for three krewes and does work for about 10 more.

They wear their costumes to events from October to April, so "they keep me busy all year long," Shuey said.

This week, however, is the most hectic time, full of 12- to 18-hour days.

"I get five hours of sleep this time of year," said Shuey, whose boutique, Karen's Krewe Closet, is on Henderson Boulevard.

Her creations can run from $50 for a single piece to $2,000 for a bejeweled wonder. It's busy, but rewarding.

"I like dealing with the krewe people," she said. "It's a lot easier than dealing with brides' mothers."

Parades, estimated annual attendance

Martin Luther King Jr. Parade16,000
Gasparilla Children's Parade200,000
Gasparilla Parade of Pirates500,000
Knights of Sant'Yago Illuminated Knight Parade100,000
St. Patrick's Day Parade100,000
Puerto Rico Cultural Parade80,000
Santa Fest Parade8,000
Outback Bowl TECO Energy Parade25,000
Source: City of Tampa, Martin Luther King Jr. parade co-chair and Puerto Rico Cultural Parade president

How other cities compare

CityNo. of paradesBiggest parade*
Tampa8Gasparilla Pirate Fest: 500,000
Miami5Parade of Kings: 500,000
Orlando4Citrus Parade: 60,000
St. Petersburg5Gay Pride Parade: 35,000
Sarasota6Holiday Parade: 20,000

*Estimated figures from the cities of Tampa, Miami, Orlando, St. Petersburg and Sarasota

Tampa's parade power a boon for small businesses 02/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 5, 2009 3:14pm]
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