BROOKSVILLE — Organizers of the Florida Blueberry Festival stepped into their new venture last year hoping that the investment of thousands of advertising dollars and many hours of planning would pay off by bringing hordes of visitors to downtown.
In one way, the event — which returns this weekend — was a success, drawing a crowd of about 40,000 over the course of the weekend.
In another way, it wasn't: despite spending well over $500,000 to put the festival on, it returned only a small profit to donate to charities.
The idea, said Michael Heard, chair of the Florida Blueberry Festival Inc., is to learn from it all.
"Last year was our training ground," said Heard. "We learned what worked and what didn't work. This year, we have the benefit of experience."
Among the first festival's growing pains: Organizers had to wrestle with the logistics of re-routing state road traffic around the city for the weekend. As a result, some feathers got ruffled, Heard said.
"Anytime you do something that's never been done before, you're bound to step on some toes," Heard said. "We listened and we made changes. And as a result, I think people will see a much smoother-running festival this year that is still just as fun."
Indeed, while the event drew a good crowd, many visitors complained about "Blueberry Bucks," which had to be purchased in order to buy beverages and food, and the cumbersome remote off-site parking, which required a 30-minute wait to board a bus to and from the event site. Such features have since been ditched in the name of simplicity and cost-savings, Heard said.
Despite the addition of a modest admission fee, Heard believes that visitors will still think the festival is a bargain.
Said Heard, "We've got so much to offer — 14 bands, arts and crafts, a great kids zone, plus car and motorcycle shows, I think our prices are right in line with what other events like this charge."
This year, the festival grounds will be slightly more compact, covering a portion of downtown that extends north from Liberty Street to Fort Dade Avenue, and east from Lemon Street to Magnolia Avenue. As was the case last year, roughly 140 food, beverage and merchandise vendors will be set up along Jefferson and Broad streets, selling everything from pizzas and corn dogs to freshly made blueberry shortcake.
The festival's entertainment lineup ranges from local and regional rock, country and blues, and will culminate with hit country artist Easton Corbin, who is scheduled to take the Hernando Park stage at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
This year's festival also will focus more on the arts, with regional artists competing for $4,000 in prize money. And the works of award-winning Hernando County wildlife artist Peter Gerbert will be on display at the Brooksville City Hall Art Gallery.
Heard said one of the most important additions this year has been the uptick of support from the county and city of Brooksville. By pledging to act more as partners than mere hosts, she believes the festival has a strong future.
"The festival sells Brooksville and it sells Hernando County'" Heard said. "That's something positive that the entire community can embrace."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.