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Florida Blueberry Festival didn't roll in profits despite success

BROOKSVILLE — If judged solely on figures provided by its organizers, the inaugural Florida Blueberry Festival in May was a huge success.

The more than 40,000 people who descended on downtown Brooksville during the three-day event created an estimated economic impact of $1.7 million. The county's tourism bureau tracked more than 313 room nights at motels and hotels. Area restaurants and businesses reported an uptick of $369,000 in additional sales tax revenue for the month.

And, of course, no one could argue that the city's image got a sizable boost, with festival organizers committing thousands of dollars on print, TV, radio and Internet advertising.

While the festival earned plenty of accolades, however, it didn't earn much money, said festival chairwoman Michael Heard. In fact, the final tally showed that the event, which had a total budget of about $564,000, netted a profit of only about $4,000 — about enough to reimburse the Kiwanis Club of Brooksville for the night parade it sponsored, plus a little seed money for next year's festival.

The bottom line: The first-year event served as a valuable learning experience, regardless of what it cost to produce, Heard said.

"A lot of questions got answered that needed to be answered," she said. "We learned what worked and what didn't work. It was a start, something to build on as we go forward."

Sprawling over a 14-square-block area, the festival proved to be a monumental undertaking that required the closing of two state-controlled roads to give visitors full access to the site. In addition to dozens of vendor booths, the event featured five continuous live entertainment stages, a kids activity zone, plus car and motorcycle shows.

Heard, who volunteered two years ago to get the festival up and running, said that plans for the 2013 Florida Blueberry Festival are well under way and will include an expanded format with a kickoff party on April 27, followed by a two-day downtown street festival May 4 and 5.

An assessment of this year's event has prompted organizers to make changes that Heard believes will help the festival be more profitable the second time around. Considerations involve restructuring parking and other logistical changes that are more realistic and less costly.

Heard said that providing shuttle and bus service for several off-site parking locations cost twice as much as organizers got back in parking fees.

"We're looking to consolidate parking and maybe use just one lot, or several nearby smaller lots," she said. "That would save a lot of money and hopefully allow people in the community to be more involved as well."

Heard said other changes involve dumping the much-despised "Berry Bucks" that people attending the festival were required to purchase to pay for food and beverages. In addition, organizers will scrub admission charges for live music.

Heard said next year's event will include more youth-oriented activities, including a game lounge, a dance area and teen-oriented live music stages. She also promised that blueberries, which were difficult to find this year, will be more plentiful next time.

Heard said that further proof of the event's success comes by way of the positive response she's had from sponsors and vendors.

"All vendors except for one have said they'll be back," Heard said.

In addition, major sponsors, including the title sponsor — the Florida Blueberry Growers Association — have announced they are on board for next year's event.

Perhaps most important, Heard said, volunteers from this year's event have indicated they are eager to return next year.

"We were fortunate to have a wonderfully supportive community," she offered. "People understand that the blueberry festival is going to continue to grow and attract people to Brooksville for many years to come."

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

Florida Blueberry Festival didn't roll in profits despite success 09/25/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 6:54pm]
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