No one would fault Paul Davis for retiring after 33 years at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, so it wasn't surprising he did just that in November 2008. But Davis, 54 and a major at the time, wasn't about to trade in his badge for a fishing pole. His retirement lasted all of two days. • "I left the sheriff's office on Friday and started here on Monday," he said. • Entering the twilight of his career, Davis started seeking a new challenge, something to energize him as much as locking up criminals. He found it at the Florida Strawberry Festival. With general manager Patsy Brooks retiring after more than 30 years, Davis was offered the job and readily accepted. • It seemed a natural fit. He had a knack for managing people and event planning. From his early days as a deputy, Davis, who is married and has three children, was quick to volunteer for security details at football games and other events to supplement his income and pay for family vacations. • As he moved up the ranks, he built a resume managing security details at Super Bowls, presidential visits and other high-profile events. In some ways, his new job running the Strawberry Festival mirrored the old one. It's all about logistics, Davis said. In the Strawberry Festival's case, that means managing hundreds of thousands of festivalgoers and hundreds of vendors and entertainers for 11 days from late February to early March. • Recently, we asked about his job and how it compares with the old one.
How did you manage the transition from law enforcement to general manager of the Strawberry Festival?
Both are really the same kind of business. Both are people businesses. They're about people. They both provide a service and when service is all you've got, you provide the best service you can. Also, the transition was made easier by the fact that I had a very successful and active board of directors. I get a lot of wisdom from that board.
What lessons from law enforcement prepared you for the festival job?
In law enforcement, you have to deal with budgets and you're expected to live within your budget. You have to live within your means. Planning is something I learned early on. When you have to deal with a presidential motorcade, the planning that goes into that is amazing. It's no different when planning for a Super Bowl. You start by thinking about all the things that could go wrong and go from there. By the time the event happens, it should be seamless. Planning is such a big part of it. You also had to learn to help people take the next step in bad situations. You could get a call to have to tell someone their mother died or their son or daughter died. You really see people at their worst on really bad days and you have to empathize with them. Out here, when someone is having a bad day we can deal with it because I'm used to dealing with people on bad days.
You've been in the job for four years, but when you started was there something that caught you off guard, something surprising?
I was surprised at how well the Strawberry Festival is known around the country. When we go to the (International Conference of Fairs) in Vegas, it's surprising how many people know about it. When you go to other events around the country, other fairs, they all know about the Strawberry Festival. The Strawberry Festival has worldwide recognition. When I talk with vendors or talk with a major act, they all say they're hoping they get to play here.
How has the Strawberry Festival changed?
It's changed a lot but it's also stayed the same. We've had some of the same vendors here for 38 years. Some of their kids have grown up coming here. The way it's changed is it's gotten bigger. Bigger rides, more rides, bigger crowds. But we have never forgotten who brought us to the dance. We were formed to celebrate the harvest of the strawberry, starting around 1930. The strawberry is king around here and we never forget that. We have a queen every year, but the strawberry is king. We have never forgotten the fundamentals of being an agricultural fair and what it represents. We tweak things every year to make them fresher, but we're still a slice of Americana. We're a place where, if you come out here alone and don't see a friend you'll make one.
What's the hardest thing about managing the Strawberry Festival?
The hardest thing is to turn people away who want to sing and dance and perform. We get about 100 requests every year (for the Community Stage) and we whittle that down to eight or nine. We have 24 main acts and we even have to turn some of them down. That's the hardest thing.
What are you looking for when choosing an act?
Most of all, we want to keep it family-oriented. When I was 13 my mother felt comfortable dropping me off at the front gate. I wouldn't recommend doing that now in this day and age. But we want people to feel it's a safe, family environment. I'm glad we never succumbed to selling alcohol. There are people who just can't handle their alcohol. And we don't allow profanity. We look for something that has broad appeal and is family-oriented. I remember one year we had an entertainer and he had these backup girls. He called them rump shakers, or something like that, and they would go out on stage in these very risque outfits. I told them to cover up, and he said "no." And I said, "Okay, here's your check," and I put it in my pocket and said, "Goodbye, have a nice trip." Then he said, "Wait a minute." They ended up putting on skirts.
You're not only the general manager of the festival but also a festivalgoer. What part of the festival do you like most?
My favorite part of any fair is the youth-agricultural events. The youth ag events are my favorite. You can't really understand it until you see a child sleeping against a pig. When you see these young kids there, it refreshes you. In law enforcement, you dealt with so many bad kids, and to see these FFA kids, it refreshes your outlook.
What is the appeal of the festival year after year?
The appeal of the Strawberry Festival is its Southern charm and family-oriented environment. No question. You go to some festivals and you notice the directors and managers are not out there on the grounds. They're running the festival from their office. Our directors are out here and you can see them in their red coats. Here, myself and my entire staff is out there on the midway and we're very approachable. You can approach anyone here. I tell the ticket takers they are the most important people here because they form the first impressions of people coming in through the gate.
You're 58. How long do you see yourself in this job?
As long as I love the job. My dad said get a job you love and you'll never go to work. I love this job.
Of all the festival foods, what is your favorite?
The strawberry shortcake. I like the sponge cake kind, not the biscuit. I like to soak up the juice. I like a lot of juice. My wife likes more strawberries.
Rich Shopes can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2454.