BROOKSVILLE — The board of directors for the Southeast Area Family Motor Coach Association decided Tuesday to move its annual winter rally from the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport to the Sarasota County fairgrounds next year.
According to the organization's president, Jim Duncan, the decision to leave the airport site after 16 years came down to economics. The lack of permanent facilities for meetings, workshops and entertainment wound up costing the association more than $150,000 for tent and generator rentals, plus other costs this year.
The Sarasota fairgrounds' offer to the group includes the use of on-site buildings and other facilities for about $35,000.
"We hate having to leave Hernando," Duncan said. "But we have to face reality and try to get more bang for our bucks. It was clear that wasn't going to happen here."
The decision was made at the association's annual board meeting, traditionally held a couple of days before the winter rally, which is taking place this week at the Hernando airport.
Duncan said that many board members already had come to the conclusion that moving the event was probably the best thing they could do to save it.
The decision, Duncan said, "didn't happen overnight" and had been in the works since the board threatened last year to move the event to Volusia County. Although officials with Hernando County, the airport and the Hernando County Aviation Authority promised to work with the association by reducing fees, offering to take over maintenance of the site and working to find a more permanent structure to house future events, many of those incentives never got past the talking stages, Duncan said.
"This has been going on for two years," he said. "(The county) had plenty of opportunity to do something, but all they did was drag their feet."
Duncan said he canceled a planned meeting Monday between association board members and county representatives because he and other board members were busy preparing for this year's rally, which kicks off Thursday.
Airport manager Kevin Daugherty said Tuesday that he was disappointed to learn of the association's decision, but declined to comment further because he hadn't yet spoken to Duncan or anyone else from the motor coach group.
Commissioner Nick Nicholson said he was disappointed as well, and wondered whether things might have turned out differently had the two sides met Monday as planned.
"I don't think that they were up-front and honest about trying to work with us,'' Nicholson said.
He said he was aware that the association was blaming the county and the Aviation Authority for dropping the ball on promises made last year.
"That part is true,'' he said. "But they didn't give us a chance to fix it this year, and I wish they would have.''
After learning of the association's decision, Commissioner Diane Rowden she said she went onto the Sarasota County Fair's website and saw the expansive facilities there.
"Wouldn't it have been nice if we had people with some vision who could have made something nicer for them so that they did want to stay?'' Rowden asked. "The airport, they've done nothing to improve the quality of life for them, and they had been warned.''
Gauging the loss of the rally's economic impact is somewhat difficult because there are no definitive numbers. But county tourism officials have long lauded the event as an economic boon due to taxable sales at grocery stores, service stations and restaurants.
Attendance at the Brooksville rally has been on the decline for the past several years, due in large part to the economic recession, which has made RV owners more choosy about their travel destinations. During its heyday in the mid 2000s, the rally often drew in excess of 2,000 RVs. This year's event is expected to draw only about one-third of that, Duncan said.
"Hopefully, the move will help us to rebuild it and make it better for everyone who participates," Duncan said. "It's still an important event that our members enjoy attending every year."
Staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.