Next month, the third annual Gasparilla Music Festival will kick off in downtown Tampa. After two weather-blessed and successful years, organizers have added a second day of bands playing on stages spread out over Curtis Hixon Park and neighboring Kiley Gardens. The Times' Bill Duryea sat down with three of the festival's key players — executive director Ty Rodriguez, GMF president Phil Benito and board member John Wakefield — to discuss what makes something a Tampa event, downtown Tampa as a vacation destination and whether it's possible to redeem the corn dog.
Was GMF initially conceived as a music festival first? Or did you always see it as a mechanism to really establish a new identity for Tampa or even transform Tampa?
Ty Rodriguez: If you're asking did we want to go out and change the landscape of music in this city, absolutely that was always a goal of ours. But it wasn't just changing the landscape of music but changing the landscape of the city in general. I've said it before, but to this day, the greatest compliment we ever got was from people we've grown up with who turned to us and said, "I've never been more proud of my city than the last couple of days."
You think it's primarily because of how you defined the demographic of your audience.
TR: I don't think we knew what the hell we were going to get into that first year. I think that the kids programming was the one thing we found out, "Okay, wow, this is a family-friendly event, that was a big surprise," but we didn't know who was going to come out. There were hipsters there. We had corporate people there. Maybe it was the all-local food. Maybe it was that we had some local indie bands.
John Wakefield: I think the event has done a really good job of showcasing Tampa in terms of its culinary specialties. Ty's done a really good job of that, not having a lot of carnival-type food. The first year Fly Bar did fries. Malio's did a steak sandwich. Ella's did chicken and waffles. Cafe Hey did the Cuban. We've got all these craft beers that we've brought in, all these local breweries.
Phil Benito: There was definitely a focus in making it Tampa-centric. New Orleans Jazz Fest has done that for 30 years. They've stuck to the traditional New Orleans cuisine, but the vendors we've brought in have done it with a little bit of a twist.
There's a lot of music festivals around. But is there a difference between an event that happens in Tampa and a Tampa event?
JW: I think what you're saying is right. There are events in Tampa and there are Tampa events. This is a Tampa event.
PB: That was something that I think Live Nation is trying to capture by changing the name from Funshine to Big Guava. We have no idea whether it has anything to do with GMF, but it's the first time that they've tried to come up with a word that would only make sense in Tampa.
TR: There's a misconception that you can put up a stage, you can book a band and you can throw some food trucks in a field and you have a music festival, and I believe that's what most of these guys are doing and that's why they are failing. We are holding our own against some really big people who come into this city with a lot more money than us, but that's not our gig. We're not concerned with that. We're just concerned with how can we best provide for the guests that come to GMF.
PB: I know there's an aesthetic element that we're not willing to overlook because of a bottom line. There's things we'll spend money on because we think it's important.
Give me a for instance.
JW: Picket fences around the corporate area.
TR: Not charging $10 for a beer.
PB: Accepting cash for beer. Not making people wait in line for tickets to make people wait in line to go spend those tickets. It's more important for people to enjoy themselves than be stuck in lines all day.
So what do you aspire to be? What does GMF look like five years, 10 years from now?
JW: In 2015 you're going to have a Riverwalk completed. You've got Water Works Park on one end, there's an amphi- theater built, you've got this center stage park here and Cotanchobee on the other end and a couple of other small parks like MacDill along the way. My vision in five years is that we're selling hotel rooms and people are coming for three or four days at a time to come to a music festival in downtown Tampa. Maybe they spend two days at the festival and maybe the other two days they're going to the aquarium and the Museum of Art or the Children's Museum or the Straz. They come to Tampa and they spend the entire four days right here in downtown. They don't have to go anywhere else.
So is it fair to say you feel like you're part of the economic development of the city?
PB: We feel like we're adding to it. Maybe the thought in five years is showcasing Tampa to people outside a 50-mile radius. As we grow and our capacity expands, hopefully we're able to create that draw from outside the market.
What is the most effective way to put Tampa on the map? An event like this or a once-off like a Super Bowl, an RNC, a Bollywood Oscars?
JW: In my opinion you need them both. Those bigger events give top-quality local events like these a chance to say, "Here's why you should come back. You had a great time in Tampa, come back and you'll get a chance to deep dive with a festival like GMF."
Around here you were on everybody's best of 2013 lists, but I just happened across a New Times from Broward article on the five festivals you shouldn't miss this year. And you weren't on it. Does that bother you that you have this rep here, but it hasn't yet extended to even South Florida?
PB: I wouldn't take offense to it as much as like maybe we're not marketing this as well. Why doesn't this person know about us?
JW: A lot of times I think those festivals might get chosen on the acts that get booked and not necessarily on the festival experience.
TR: We've gotten where we've gotten without a headliner. We don't know why. We think we know why. We hope it's all those things we talked about when we said it's layers. Everyone can come to the festival for different reasons. Let's say you're going to come see one band and that band's going to be at 8 o'clock at night. Okay, well let's go at 4. We'll go eat lunch. We'll walk around a little bit. We'll buy a few beers. We'll listen to the music and we'll go.
I'm just looking at that quote from Chuck Sykes: "The festival gives downtown the youthful energy we need to be a first-class city." Wow, that's a lot of pressure.
TR: (Laughing) Thanks.
JW: We've delivered that two years in a row and we'll deliver that again this year. Along those lines, this is a young board, and maybe that's something that Chuck Sykes recognized. He's obviously a part of a leadership class age 55 to 70, and if I'm him, I'm looking at this event from his building and I'm like, "Wow, who's putting that on?" He's looking at that board of directors and it's not the regular faces that show up on all his regular boards of directors. Total generational difference. And it's a young generation.
If you had a master plan to share with the movers and shakers of Tampa, what would you say needs to happen in downtown Tampa?
PB: I think continuing the steady growth that's been happening over the last 24 to 36 months. As the projects in Channelside and the Heights complete, hopefully the residential density down here increases. It's been moving in the right direction for the last couple of years. As far as the smaller businesses that have opened up down here, from Duckweed to Fly Bar, that economic impact just helps to develop the culture of the city.
Is there any way you'll bend on the no-corn-dog rule?
TR: (Laughing) Oh, man. First of all it wasn't my rule. Dave (Cox, former festival president) got so much s--- for that.
Maybe you can get the Refinery to "reimagine" the corn dog.
TR: If someone wants to reimagine the corn dog, I'm down with that. Maybe the batter has chipotle in it. Or it's chorizo. Hey, I'm writing that down.
This interview has been condensed for space and clarity.