Here's one reason to feel good about having a few drinks at the Gasparilla Pirate Fest:
Every dollar you spend on beer or wine at a tent along the parade route goes to charity.
Factor in what that means at the city's biggest, booziest public event — crowd estimated at 300,000 — and even through beer goggles, the implications are clear: It's a lot of money.
Enough to keep vans running so intellectually disabled adults can go to a day program.
Enough to buy a boat so lower-income kids can learn to row.
Enough to fund every sports team for an entire year at a special-needs school.
It's hard to imagine any charity that wouldn't want to get in on that kind of fundraising. Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, which runs the event, estimates that for the past three years, charity beer sales have generated from $95,000 to $145,000 per year.
But each year, the krewe selects only a handful of organizations to run the charity beer gardens. The number this year is eight.
Being one of them is no easy task.
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If you run a small nonprofit organization with a thin volunteer base and a Pabst Blue Ribbon budget, look elsewhere for fundraising opportunities.
"I don't want to get 500 applications," said Jay Rudy, who coordinates the charity beer gardens for Ye Mystic Krewe.
Every year, he said, one to two dozen apply. The krewe says it picks only those that directly serve the Tampa Bay area and are not nationally sponsored. Each must prove it has the money and manpower to jump the logistical hoops that come with selling beer on the Gasparilla route.
Among the requirements:
At least 40 volunteers, enough up-front cash to buy all the alcohol at cost and a city wet-zoning process that involves $2 million liability insurance, hiring at least two extra duty police officers at an hourly rate of $41 each and a signature from the mayor.
Once they are selected, charities attend multiple meetings where they coordinate to buy T-shirts and wristbands and rent tents and private portable toilets. They get schooled on the games minors play to try to get alcohol, including slicing and pasting wristbands, and are warned that if they sell to a minor, their beer garden will be shut down.
They learn that amid the chaos, it will take a small team to efficiently sell one beer: one to check the ID, one to take the money, one to get the beer and one to serve. Duplicate that for the six lines that form at a tent. Then consider several people will be in the crowd scouting customers and monitoring for underage shenanigans and at least one will be in the back, counting cash.
"It's not for the faint of heart," Rudy said. "We like to see prior experience. You don't go from driving a car on the road to doing NASCAR."
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In 2003, 47 charities applied to sell beer at Gasparilla. Six got beer gardens.
A few that did not make it, or did not apply, went directly to the Tampa City Council to ask for temporary permits to sell on and near the route. Gasparilla organizers spoke out against them and Ye Mystic Krewe's attorney called them "ambush vendors."
One of them, the Jolly Roger Civic Association, said Gasparilla organizers had parked a truck in front of its tent at a previous parade to shield it from view.
Gasparilla organizers said that the previous year, Jolly Roger had sold Budweiser, which was, at the time, in direct competition with the parade's sponsor. Miller Brewing Co. was so deeply offended, organizers said, it almost withdrew its sponsorship.
The argument prompted then-City Council member Bob Buckhorn to quip, "I promise you … I will not drink, what is it, Budweiser, at my house on Davis Islands on Gasparilla day for fear of putting your sponsor at risk."
The loopholes tightened. And the sponsorships changed.
Now, Budweiser and Bud Light are sold on the parade route, and lots of it, with 16-ounce cans going for $4 a pop. Offerings for $5: a margarita-flavored malt beverage called Lime-a-Rita, Kona Longboard Island Lager, Beck's Sapphire and wine.
The city zoning department was not aware of any "ambush vendors" trying to sell beer anywhere near the Gasparilla route.
"Politically, that would be suicide," said Brenda Ruehl, executive director of Self Reliance Inc., which serves people with disabilities. "You do it right, you get your chance." Her group made $34,000 last year. Amid contract cuts, "beer money," as she calls it, helped pay for staff, wheelchair repairs, walkers, shower chairs, portable ramps and flashing doorbell ringers and baby cry alarms for the deaf. The best thing about beer money, she said, is that unlike public money, it has no restrictions. Need to fix a toilet? No problem. "This is our fifth or sixth year," she said. "We are immensely grateful. And I know that at some point in time, that our good luck will run out and somebody else will be there."
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Every charity Gasparilla chose this year has been picked at least once before. The krewe says prior acceptance looks good on an application.
The Tampa Federation of Garden Club Circles attributes its multiyear stretch, in part, to the fact that it sells beer just across from its Bayshore headquarters.
Two other charities — Friends of the Riverwalk and Friends of Tampa Recreation — benefit city amenities.
And the David A. Straz Jr. Center for Performing Arts was also selected last year, when its namesake was crowned Gasparilla king by Ye Mystic Krewe.
But Rudy says he does not know of any chosen charity in which krewe members are involved. "Everybody gets a chance"
Quantum Leap Farm, an Odessa charity that offers horse-riding opportunities to the disabled, got one last year.
"At that time, they were looking for charities that they weren't familiar with," said founder Edie Dopking.
The farm netted $23,000 and used it to give scholarships to its participants. It applied again this year but didn't get picked.
"Since we did it last year, they told us to apply again in a year or two," Dopking said. "They're trying to give other charities in the area a chance to do it."
The Pepin Academies have gotten that chance for four or five years. Founder and community liaison Crisha Scolaro says that because public funding goes only toward academics, the Gasparilla fundraiser is all that keeps the special needs charter school's entire athletic program running. Beer money buys basketball, volleyball, soccer, golf and bowling for kids with autism and Asperger syndrome from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.
"Thirty-two percent of our population are free and reduced lunch," she said. "They can't afford uniforms. We don't have a gymnasium."
Last year's $10,000 went a long way. She says the krewe knows that when it selects charities.
Does it also help that the school's namesake is also the beer distributor for the parade?
She responded, "I hope so."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.