Wednesday, April 25, 2018
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Music festivals coming to St. Petersburg's Williams Park

With the inaugural Gasparilla Music Festival just weeks away in Tampa's gleaming Curtis Hixon Park, another concert series is brewing in a far less splashy park in St. Petersburg — yet it could end up being even bigger.

A Tampa company wants to reinvent downtown Williams Park by staging at least eight daylong music festivals there in 2012, including shows by national headliners like Tonic, Sister Hazel and the actor Gary Sinise. The first is scheduled for March 31.

Backline Music Group is plotting four concerts in the spring and four in the fall, said partner Kevin Lilly. He hopes the spring shows will attract up to 5,000 people, but he's aiming for bigger names in the fall — O.A.R. and Smashing Pumpkins were mentioned as possibilities — that could bring crowds of up to 9,000.

That kind of success wouldn't be unprecedented. Prior to Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, Miller Lite sponsored a free concert in Williams Park by the rock band Hoobastank that drew between 5,000 and 7,000 people.

Backline aims to keep the concerts free to the public, offsetting costs through sponsorships, food and beverage sales and VIP ticket sales.

"My personal vision for that park is to make it a city center again, and use that stage and have it be a place for music," said Lilly, 31. "Our passion is to reinvent Williams Park."

It could be a tough sell. The park's name is synonymous with St. Petersburg's homeless problems, and the city has spent years trying to clean up its image — banning panhandling, adding LED lights to the park's trees, encouraging community events.

But Lilly is convinced the park can be reinvented as a live music hub. In 2009, he spearheaded a monthly Last Friday music series at the park. He also helped orchestrate the Hoobastank show, which he says showed the park's potential.

One benefit of the park: It already has an amphitheater. "Williams Park will save you $10,000 off the bat by not having to build a stage," Lilly said. That's money he can spend booking bigger-name acts.

Lilly, a St. Petersburg native, got into the concert industry after college, apprenticing with organizers of New Orleans' massive Essence Music Festival and Voodoo Music Experience. Locally, he has worked on A Taste of Pinellas in Vinoy Park, and is booking concerts throughout 2012 at the Don CeSar Beach Resort and other Lowes Hotels. He's also in talks to bring at least one spring concert to Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa.

But for now, his primary focus is Williams Park.

"I'm making a commitment to the city to continue to have a lineup," he said. "I'll do eight festivals a year, every year. These shows are meant to be annual, and bigger and better every year."

Mayor Bill Foster said Backline's efforts dovetail with the city's ongoing mission to reclaim Williams Park.

"The only way we're really going to keep it for all the people of St. Petersburg is to reprogram it," Foster said, adding that the park's centralized location could help bring in larger crowds. "It's in the heart, where you could literally walk to the waterfront, walk to the businesses along Central Avenue."

The city already utilizes several parks for concerts. Vinoy Park hosts several festivals per year, and on Sunday, rapper Flo Rida will perform at North Shore Park as part of the Rock 'n' Roll St. Pete Half Marathon. In November, Foster helped organize a fundraising concert by Martina McBride at another unconventional venue, Demens Landing Park.

"We'll never have a 1-800-Ask-Gary Amphitheatre — that's a mouthful — but for St. Pete to have these intimate venues along the water with a great backdrop is really our niche," he said.

Times staff writer Sandra Gadsden contributed to this report.

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