TAMPA — Corporate tents pop up behind a temporary wall of fencing on Bayshore Boulevard, giving businesses, sponsors and big-money types an exclusive view of the annual pirate festival.
But the fence also walls off the parade from the Historic Hyde Park neighborhood, whose yards have served as a backdrop for more than three decades.
It causes some residents to seethe: Has the free parade gone too corporate? Is the city spending too much to put on Gasparilla? And does it really help the local economy anyway?
"Where's the money going?" asked Jack Wyatt, who heads the Historic Hyde Park Neighborhood Association's Gasparilla committee.
The answers are complex, hidden and open to debate — not surprising for Tampa's signature event that began with a myth and faced criticism before.
The parade goes from 2 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
Gasparilla began in 1904 when influential city leaders wanted to liven up a festival by incorporating the story of folklore pirate Jose Gaspar. A secret society of businessmen, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, formed and started it.
The krewe, now numbering 700 men, has held the reins since. Over the years, Gasparilla has sailed into controversy. Community pressure prompted the krewe to integrate in 1992. After an explosion of new krewes in the 1990s, Ye Mystic Krewe demanded unsuccessfully that only its members dress as pirates for the centennial parade.
But Gasparilla also helped forge Tampa's national identity, reflected by the name of its professional football team and the city's annual involvement.
In 2008, Tampa spent more than $475,000 on the Gasparilla Pirate Fest including setup, enforcement and cleanup. Those costs grew to $555,000 in 2009 and $554,000 in 2010. Nearly half went toward policing. (The annual Children's Gasparilla Parade cost the city almost $160,000 in addition last year.)
It's unclear exactly how much Ye Mystic Krewe contributes financially.
Its parade organizer, EventFest of Tampa, charges between $28 and $92 for bleacher seats and tent access.
"You have to question where the money's going," said John Jones, the Historic Hyde Park Neighborhood Association president. Since Gasparilla is supported by taxpayer money, he said, Ye Mystic Krewe should be more transparent.
"What are we getting out of it?" Wyatt asked.
One answer lies in a 2007 study parade organizers commissioned that estimated Gasparilla events had a $14 million economic impact, generating more than $3 million in wages and supporting 35,000 workers.
More than half of Gasparilla attendees come from outside Hillsborough County and help fill hotels and restaurants, according to the Bonn Marketing Research Group of Tallahassee.
"It benefits the greater good of the entire Tampa area as evidence by the fact that we have over 300,000 in attendance on an annual basis," Ye Mystic Krewe captain Philip Carroll said.
The city says its investment in Gasparilla is worth it.
"The costs the city puts into the event is to make it the safest event possible," said Santiago Corrada, Tampa cultural arts administrator. "Are the expenses justifiable? In our minds they are."
The budget for Gasparilla, which includes the city's contributions, ticket sales and in-kind donations, is about $3.6 million, said Darrell Stefany, EventFest president.
He said EventFest and Ye Mystic Krewe pay for many things from ticket sales to sponsorship contracts, including fireworks, beads, insurance, bike racks and $10,000 of trash boxes.
A small portion goes back to the krewe to cover expenses, Stefany said. Beer concessions go directly to several charities, which have earned more than $50,000 each over the past two years.
"It's not a for-profit event," he said. "It's a for-the-community event."
Stefany said sponsorship agreements don't permit him to be completely transparent with Gasparilla's budget. Those sponsoring businesses view Gasparilla as crucial to their viability in Tampa, and vice versa.
Title sponsor Seminole Hard Rock Casino will toss 30,000 strands of branded beads at the parade.
"It's a way to be visible to a lot of people who come visit," spokesman Gary Bitner said.
Pepin Distributing Co., another top sponsor and Tampa's Anheuser Busch distributor, is passing out 40,000 Budweiser and Bud Light beads.
"It is a treasure in this community to have this event," Pepin spokesman Bill Gieseking said, "and we should always support it for the good of the community."
Sponsors are among those who get the hospitality tents on Bayshore Boulevard that bother some in Hyde Park.
"It makes it less community friendly," said Kathy Durdin, who lives a block from the route. "It has made it impossible for everyone but those who have paid money to participate in the parade in our part of the city."
Stefany said he has met several times with neighbors and worked to create more access.
But he said not everyone has a problem. Some Hyde Park residents have reserved tents.
"Bayshore Boulevard is a city park," Stefany said. "We have a responsibility in producing Gasparilla for the whole community."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.