Saturday, February 24, 2018
Business

The first Florida Blueberry Festival debuts May 4 in Brooksville

BROOKSVILLE — Within the next month or so, Hernando County residents will begin seeing signs of what organizers hope will one day become the county's signature community celebration.

Although the inaugural Florida Blueberry Festival is still four months away, an ambitious committee has already laid much of the groundwork for the event. Beginning in March, banners, signs and posters will start going up around the county and surrounding areas. Regional media advertising will be aimed at luring visitors from around the state.

Once underway, the three-day festival, which kicks off May 4 with a 130-float parade, will illustrate all of the hard work and effort that has gone into it, said blueberry festival chairwoman Michael Heard.

"We've been at this for two years, and we think we've done our homework," Heard said. "It was a vision that a lot of people came together to make happen. I think the entire community is going to benefit from it."

Despite being a first-time event, Heard expects it to attract upward of 40,000 people. Twelve square blocks of downtown Brooksville have been set aside for entertainment pavilions, five stages for live music, kids' activity booths and 150-plus vendor booths.

Held at a time of the year when the blueberry harvest in the region is at its peak, the event has the support of growers in 15 Central Florida counties where the berries are grown. Many of them will be on hand selling their bounty, Heard said.

"The growers have shown tremendous support for the festival," she said. "They got on board early and have provided us with a lot of good ideas that we've been able to put into action."

Having the event in Brooksville will be boon to the local economy. Visitors, vendors and other participants will be staying and dining in outlying areas. It will also bring the county a lot of prestige, Heard said.

"Our goal is simple," she said. "We want to bring people in and introduce them to our community and let them see what it has to offer. Once they're here . . . we're hoping they'll want to come back."

The idea for the event was the result of a motor home tour of Central Florida organized two years ago by Dennis Wilfong, the city's ambassador for business and economic development. Wilfong took a group of city officials and other community leaders to DeLand in Volusia County to get a feel for how that city has reinvigorated its downtown core.

Hosting a community festival to bring in visitors seemed to be an idea that was very doable in Brooksville. Shortly afterward, Heard, Wilfong and others met with a local blueberry grower who had approached the city with the idea of a fruit festival.

"Everything just took off after that," Heard recalled. "We've never looked back."

To get the festival up and running, Heard's group got an initial $20,000 grant from the Hernando County Tourist Development Council to help with publicity and to create a website. The Florida Blueberry Growers Association and Fresh from Florida contributed major sponsor support of $50,000. An additional $130,000 was raised through 60 sponsorships from local and regional businesses.

Paul Davis, general manager of the 81-year-old Florida Strawberry Festival, believes that the blueberry festival has the potential to become a top-drawer event that will continue to grow each year.

"Something like this brings a community together," Davis said. "It becomes a great source of pride that people want to be part of every year because it makes a positive statement about their community that people everywhere will notice."

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]

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