Thursday, February 22, 2018
Business

Brooksville could learn from Kumquat Festival

Dade City's revival of its old downtown has long been held out as a model for Brooksville.

We could also probably learn from an event that helps keep Dade City revived — the annual Kumquat Festival.

It attracted a crowd of 45,000 this year, just about the same as Brooksville's inaugural Florida Blueberry Festival last May.

They're similar in other ways, too: not held on remote, dedicated grounds, but right in their respective downtowns, and for the purpose of promoting them — to give visitors a taste of these places and their signature agricultural products so they come back for more.

"It's our busiest day of the year," Larie Hensley, who owns Mallie Kyla's Cafe locations in both Dade City and Brooksville, said of the Kumquat Festival.

"But a lot of people are too busy to sit down for lunch and they'll come back the following week. There's a ripple effect that's really good."

So how did the Kumquat Festival manage to pull this off?

Well, it started off small and grew gradually.

Even now, after 15 years, the budget for the one-day festival is about $20,000, not counting $30,000 in staff time from the Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the event.

The Blueberry Festival took the opposite approach, trying to make a big splash from the start, paying for billboards and cable television ads, and managing to spend just about all of the $564,000 it raised last year. Even this year, with organizer Michael Heard touting a leaner event, the budget will be about $250,000.

The lower costs for the Kumquat Festival mean less straining for revenue. It gets by on sponsorships, small cash grants from Pasco County and the state, and flat fees from vendors — $125 for craft booths, $250 for food.

There is no charge for admission or for the official parking at the Pasco fairgrounds, or the shuttles that run visitors back and forth to downtown.

With nobody putting the squeeze on visitors before they get to the festival, maybe they're more willing to spend once they get there. That's the way it looks from the number of vendors the event attracted this year — 400, compared to 109 at last year's Blueberry Festival.

These vendors also probably like it that organizers don't try to take a cut of their proceeds. That was the thinking — such as it was — behind last year's disastrous Blueberry Bucks.

That in-festival currency has been abandoned this year, as have other features that were supposed to make money and didn't: the remote parking lots with deluxe, air-conditioned shuttle buses, the acts in the paid venue that weren't much better or better known than the ones playing for free on the street.

But these ideas to generate revenue have been replaced by another one that doesn't sound much better — fencing off downtown and charging admission.

Isn't the festival supposed to welcome people to downtown Brooksville?

I predict there will be backlash against the fence, just as there has been against Heard's requests for about $25,000 in cash and other assistance from the city of Brooksville, which was granted last week, and about $20,000 worth of help from the Hernando County Commission, which was flatly rejected on Tuesday.

I get the feeling people don't understand why Heard needs so much money, such big favors.

Did she really have to ask the county to shut its offices at noon on the Friday before the festival starts? Did she really think it would? And did she have to be so nasty — threatening even — when she didn't get what she wanted?

Outside the commission chambers Tuesday, Heard saw Hernando County Fair Association president Sandra Nicholson — who had spoken against giving assistance to the festival — and promised to "do everything in my power to destroy you."

Who knew that an event about pretty little berries could bring out so much ugliness?

In fact, you can almost see the festival starting to sink in a sea of negativity. It tends to happen in Brooksville.

And it doesn't in Dade City, at least not as much. All I heard about the Kumquat Festival was how everybody is happy to support it.

So, let's remember that the Blueberry Festival is one of the better things that's happened to Brooksville recently, that it brought in as many people in its first year as the Kumquat Festival did in its 16th.

Yes, Heard can learn from Dade City. So can we all.

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