BROOKSVILLE — Decades ago, Brooksville was known as the nation's "tangerine capital."
Starting today, it appears blueberries will take over as the city's calling card.
Two years ago, an ambitious committee began laying the groundwork for a signature street festival they hoped would raise Brooksville's profile by celebrating its connection to the berries grown throughout the region and shipped all over the country.
That vision becomes real today as the inaugural Florida Blueberry Festival kicks off with a parade at 6:30 p.m. That will be followed by a weekend's worth of everything blueberry to eat, concerts, art demonstrations, car and bike shows, vendor exhibits and children's activities that organizers expect to attract thousands of new visitors.
"I think we're ready for them," festival organizer Michael Heard said this week. "A lot of people have worked very hard to make this festival happen. I'm sure once it's here, people all over the community will be proud."
Indeed, while putting together the largest event of its type in recent city history, organizers have had to speculate on some aspects of the festival in the hopes of avoiding a logistical nightmare.
One of the major concerns has been traffic. About 14 blocks in and around downtown will be blocked off to traffic, and signs have been erected to guide drivers around detours and road closures.
Two weeks ago, state Department of Transportation officials approved a plan to close two state roads, Broad and Jefferson streets, starting about 6:30 p.m. today. As a result, traffic through the downtown area will be detoured using the State Road 50 truck route, Cobb Road and other routes around the city's perimeter.
Vehicles arriving to the festival will be directed to off-site parking at Brooksville Regional Hospital, 17240 Cortez Blvd.; Hernando County Fairgrounds, 6436 Broad St.; the county public works facility, 1525 E Jefferson St.; Hernando High School, 700 Bell Ave.; and Brooksville Elementary School, 885 N Broad St. Parking charges will range from $10 to $15 per car, and visitors will be taken to and from the festival site by shuttle.
Once inside, visitors will be free to stroll unimpeded throughout the festival grounds. And there will be plenty to see and do, Heard said.
"I think we've done a good job in planning for people who want to spend the day here," Heard said. "They're not going to get bored."
Among the highlights will be continuous music, including local and regional rock, country, blues, jazz, folk and rhythm and blues entertainers, who will perform on seven stages around the festival grounds.
Art will also be a major focus, with a plein air, or open air, painting exhibit, sidewalk art displays and an auction of specially created art picnic tables.
For the younger set, a kids zone will provide a host of activities from hot dog-eating contests to water games to face painting.
And of course, there will be blueberries everywhere, Heard said.
"Our biggest selling point is that (the festival) comes at a time of the year when people are buying, eating and thinking of blueberries," Heard said. "And when they take some home, hopefully they'll remember what a good time they had while they were here."
For detailed information on the Florida Blueberry Festival, visit floridablueberryfestival.org.
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]