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Brooksville declares its inaugural Blueberry Festival a huge success

Festival volunteer Sarah Ann Bradburn, 19, enjoys a plate of sausage and pancakes — covered with blueberries, of course.

CHRIS PRICE | Special to the Times

Festival volunteer Sarah Ann Bradburn, 19, enjoys a plate of sausage and pancakes — covered with blueberries, of course.

BROOKSVILLE — Normally a sleepy, laidback town with hardly a soul downtown, the city of Brooksville came to life over the weekend.

At times, the crowds were elbow to elbow as visitors to the inaugural Florida Blueberry Festival angled for a spot in line at booths selling blueberry shortcakes, hot dogs and cold beer.

On Tuesday, organizers declared the event a winner.

Festival coordinator Michael Heard said no exact figures were available yet on how the festival did financially. She estimated the weekend crowd at between 40,000 and 50,000, although that figure was somewhat higher than other officials' estimates.

Nonetheless, Heard said the event did what was supposed to do: bring outsiders to the city while championing Central Florida as a major grower of blueberries.

"We had growers from 17 counties that participated," Heard said. "And every one of the ones that I talked to were very pleased."

Sonny Vergara, chairman of the Brooksville Vision Foundation, a civic group that provided much of the early support for the festival, called the event "a big victory" for both local business owners and residents.

"I talked to restaurant owners who said they did more business in three days than they often do in two weeks," Vergara said. "It definitely put us on the map."

Hernando County tourism coordinator Tammy Heon agreed, saying that several motel owners she talked to Tuesday reported a marked increase in business over the weekend. Out-of-towners she met from Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando and Ocala seemed to enjoy the small-town atmosphere and the hospitality of the locals, she said.

"When you have something that positive that so many people enjoy," Heon said, "it's a positive for the entire area."

Of course, the event wasn't without a few first-time glitches.

Heard said that parking didn't go as well as planned, and that some things, such as booths where patrons could purchase fresh blueberries, had to be scrapped at the last minute because of a shortage of tents. Many people also complained about having to purchase Blueberry Bucks currency for most food and beverages.

All of those issues will be addressed at a festival wrap-up meeting later this month, she said.

"This has been was a huge learning curve for us," Heard said. "We are absolutely committed to making changes so that it will the best festival we can possibly create."

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@tampabay.com.

Brooksville declares its inaugural Blueberry Festival a huge success 05/08/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 8, 2012 8:23pm]
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