ST. PETERSBURG — When the VIP lounge was $50 and the vendor fee was $300, visitors packed the house at the Last Friday concert in Williams Park.
Since the series began in December, thousands have attended the free concert, where the first national act performed in the park's bandstand, and thousands have been raised for charity.
But like everything else in a troubled economy, the concert series is making adjustments.
Organizers are reducing the VIP lounge fee to $25 and the fee it charges vendors to $100, in order to make sure that the event continues to be a success. The VIP lounge includes prime seating, food from selected area restaurants and hand-rolled cigars.
"Everybody is hurting a little bit, and we are trying to make each other grow," said Kevin Lilly Jr., a founder and organizer of the event. "We are lowering the fees just a little bit to create long-term partners."
The change comes after the recent demise of the Wednesday Midday Market, which folded after too few vendors agreed to continue participating, according to its manager.
Both events were created in partnership between the Friends of Williams Park and the city of St. Petersburg as a way to generate interest in the downtown park as a destination, amid fears that it had been taken over by the homeless and, at times, crime.
In a symbolic ceremony during last month's concert, Mayor Rick Baker took part in turning on hundreds of small LED lights that now adorn the park's trees. The lighting is meant to signify the rebirth of the gathering spot.
"Williams Park has served an important role throughout St. Petersburg's history," said Baker. "We are now seeing a renewed attention being given to once again make Williams Park a community gathering place."
But unlike the Wednesday Midday Market, which has been replaced by a free art market called Wednesday at Williams, the Last Friday concert series has been a relative success.
The concerts will continue to be free to park visitors who choose not to upgrade to the cushioned comforts of the VIP lounge. A Feb. 27 performance will feature a Mardi Gras theme, coinciding with the city's annual Cajun Zydeco Crawfish Festival, which will take place a few weeks later in March.
Taking the stage will be Gumbo Boogie, a Bradenton Zydeco band that has played in St. Petersburg before. Plans are under way to hand out beads, just like at the New Orleans event, and serve gumbo and other Creole dishes.
Lilly said that last month, when as many as 6,000 people showed up to hear the alternative rock band Hoobastank, $17,000 was raised for charity through beer sales.
The charities that benefited — Pinellas Hope, the Wunsch Family Foundation for children with cancer and chronic blood disorders, and the Abilities Foundation — understand that the concert series is about making downtown a destination.
During the concert series, visitors are encouraged to drop food items and clothing into a "Pinellas Hope Chest" that benefits residents of that shelter, and as many as a dozen residents are paid to help set up the event.
Lilly said each charity has agreed to put as much as 20 percent of donations in a rainy day fund that would cover future shortfalls.
Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or Lperez@sptimes.com.