Florida Blueberry Festival has been years in the making

BROOKSVILLE — Michael Heard doesn't particularly like the moniker Blueberry Queen, but she's learned to expect hearing it whenever she walks downtown.

People will call her over and want to chat about how the biggest public event in the city's history is coming together.

And it makes sense. Heard knows everything there is to know about the inaugural Florida Blueberry Festival, which kicks off Friday and runs through Sunday. She's walked every square inch of the 14-block perimeter that she hopes to see filled with people checking out vendors selling blueberry pancakes, pies, shortcakes and fresh blueberries.

She's conferred with everyone from road engineers to hot dog vendors to law enforcement personnel, and can even tell you the exact location of the dozens of portable toilets being brought in for the event.

Having worked on the event for more than two years, Heard has seen the beaming smiles on the faces of residents and business owners who are anxious to see the festival turn into a signature event the city can be proud of. She's also heard from business owners and residents who are concerned about disruptions to traffic and parking, as well as permanent changes being made to a popular public downtown park.

All of that comes with the territory, Heard figures. From her festival headquarters at Brooksville City Hall, where she often spends more than 16 hours a day, she maintained last week that while a few feathers may have been ruffled along the way, the long-term positives from the festival will far outweigh any short-term inconveniences.

"We've made some errors along the way, and I regret them," she said. "But we're trying to do something on a scale never done before in Brooksville. We really tried to get input from everyone. In the end, this event is going to pay huge dividends to the community."

Even critics agree that the festival — which will feature art demonstrations, crafts booths, a kids zone, beer and wine gardens, a parade, car and motorcycle shows and 25 bands on five stages — will draw good crowds.

And that's what many feel is needed in the sleepy burg, where the streets seldom see much action after midday on Saturday.

"We set out to put together an event that hopefully would kick-start something bigger," Heard said. "We've advertised all over the state. People are going to come and see our city, fall in love with it and want to come back."

In 2010, Heard left her duties as finance executive at Silverthorn Country Club to become volunteer director for the festival. A joint venture between the Florida Blueberry Growers Association and the Brooksville Vision Foundation, the event seeks to promote downtown revitalization.

Heard assembled a two-person volunteer staff and reached out to the community as well as the city to find associate directors to coordinate things such as logistics, volunteers and vendors and to help raise more than $300,000 in sponsorships. According to Heard, none of the festival staffers are being compensated for their time, and extra services such as police, garbage and traffic control are being paid for by the festival.

Proceeds from the event will be divided three ways among a collection of local charities, the Blueberry Growers and the Brooksville Vision Foundation, which will use its funds to promote downtown development and, she hopes, more festivals and art shows.

Logistics alone took months to plan, Heard said. And some, including the complete closing of stretches of two state highways — Broad and Jefferson streets — are unprecedented for a three-day public event.

"When the (Florida Department of Transportation) gave us the green light, it was a huge sigh of relief," Heard said. "I don't know how we could have had the event if that didn't happen." Heard said she hopes the festival will illustrate the importance of community cooperation, and perhaps that will lead to the city hosting more art shows, music festivals and outdoor markets throughout the year. But for now, her biggest concern is pulling off the blueberry festival with as few hitches as possible.

She thinks things will work out just fine.

"If for some reason it doesn't work, I'd be amazed," she said. "But at least I'll know that we put our best foot forward."

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

The Florida Blueberry Festival

Where: Downtown Brooksville.

When: The festival kicks off at 6:30 p.m Friday with a 130-entry parade, followed by a celebrity blueberry stomp and a rock concert by the Journey tribute band Never Stop Believin'. Events on Saturday and Sunday include a scenic bike ride; classic car, hot rod and custom bike shows; a hot dog-eating contest; sidewalk art demonstrations; a special Cinco de Mayo celebration; kids activities, and live music.

Admission: Admission to the festival is free, but parking is off site and will cost $10 to $15 per vehicle, with shuttle service available to and from the festival grounds.

Information: Call (352) 754-4173 or visit floridablueberry

festival.org.

Florida Blueberry Festival has been years in the making 04/28/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 28, 2012 12:28pm]

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