CLEARWATER — Nancy Blacklin checks the lineup for the Clearwater Jazz Holiday every year.
If the 80-year-old grandmother sees someone on there she likes — like trumpeter Chris Botti or pianist Dave Brubeck — she makes sure to keep the third weekend in October clear for the free four-day concert in Coachman Park.
That routine will include one significant change this October, if Blacklin likes the lineup: She'll need to hand over $10 to get through the gate at the waterfront park.
One of the largest free jazz festivals in the country will no longer be free. The Clearwater Jazz Holiday Foundation announced Monday that, for the first time in the 33-year history of the event, a general admission fee will be charged.
Admission will cost $10 per day for the festival, scheduled for Oct. 18-21. There will be no charge for children 12 and under.
Event organizers said they did not come to the decision lightly. Bob Childress, president of the Clearwater Jazz Holiday Foundation, said organizers have considered charging for admission for years, due to continued drops in corporate sponsorship and grant money.
The event has a budget of about $1 million, according to foundation consultant Gary Hallas. In 2008, corporate sponsorship and grants covered $500,000. That number dropped to about $150,000 for last year's event.
"This time it was just too tight," Childress said. "We decided that we needed to take the next step."
The Holiday receives additional revenue from vendor sales and donations, including corporate donations.
In the past, the annual festival has drawn as many as 100,000 people for the long weekend, but attendance has hovered around 40,000 in recent years. The foundation surveyed attendees last year and asked if they'd pay an entrance fee. According to Childress, the answer was overwhelming: yes.
"It's a little bit sad, but I think it's reasonable," said Cary Stiff, one of Jazz Holiday's founders. "It's a sign of the times. … Cash is just very difficult to come by."
The Jazz Holiday has always been free but has struggled in recent years to keep bringing in premium acts without charging for admission. In 1997 the Clearwater City Commission okayed alcohol sales at the concert, hoping that would help defray costs. In 2004 the event started asking for donations from attendees, which has helped, Hallas said, but it has not developed into a large revenue stream.
Organizers hope to eventually drop the entrance fee and make the Holiday free again. But that is just a hope. And they didn't preclude the possibility of charging more than $10 in 2013, based on how this year's event goes.
"It's still a signature event for the city of Clearwater, so hopefully it does bridge the gap," Hallas said. "But there's no guarantee."
Blacklin said she won't mind the entrance fee. The Clearwater grandmother remembers fondly the Holiday's early years, when she and her husband Roy could stretch out on a blanket and take in the tunes. Roy Blacklin died in 2009. Nancy Blacklin went that year to hear her favorite trumpeter, Botti. She skipped last year's event, though, because of the crowds.
The news of an admission fee overshadows, at least for now, another annual tradition for Clearwater Jazz Holiday organizers: dealing with criticism from jazz fans that the lineup is not jazz-centric enough.
Blacklin, for example, was not won over by the headline acts the foundation announced Monday: folk-blues singer Bonnie Raitt, folk rock band the Avett Brothers, and jazz saxophonist Mindi Abair. Event organizers still have about 15 more acts to select, and they'll need to pick some good ones to get Blacklin's $10.
"They're the headliners?" Blacklin said. "Since when is Bonnie Raitt jazz?"
Will Hobson can be reached at (727)-445-4167 or [email protected]