PORT RICHEY — Last spring, a space shuttle prepared for blastoff just outside the doors of a one-hour photo shop. Nearby stood a brightly-colored replica of a cartoon fish named Nemo.
The artsy exhibit at Gulf View Square mall was also an edible one, made of canned goods such as tuna fish and green beans. The structures were created by local architectural firms as part of Canstruction, a designing competition using canned goods that were then donated to the Volunteer Way Food Bank.
But because of the housing bust and the recession, some of the architectural and engineering firms who teamed up to create the structures last year say they can't afford to participate in this year's Canstruction event.
They say the $100 registration fee, coupled with the cost of buying thousands of cans of food, is too pricey this year.
In an e-mail to the food bank, Angela Holcomb of Gresham, Smith and Partners in Tampa, a firm that participated last year, said they can't afford to spend the extra money. Other firms have haven't responded or said they weren't sure if they could participate.
That leaves officials scrambling to find participants for the event, which netted about 8,000 canned goods last year and is scheduled for April 26 to May 2.
In an effort to keep the event going, the food bank will try to partner professional firms with local volunteers to help supply the canned goods, said Martha O'Brien, the food bank's assistant CEO.
The idea for the Canstruction program came about in 2002. The food bank's CEO, Lester Cypher, stumbled across the program online while looking for places to get canned goods to stock the food bank's warehouse.
"I tried to get the program off the ground, but the hard part was getting groups to participate and build the structures," he said. "They didn't have time or weren't interested."
Soon after, Cypher said, O'Brien joined the food bank's staff and got the program off the ground. Officials joined New York-based Canstruction. For a fee of $100 a year, the food bank receives books on how to run a Canstruction project and plaques for the winners of the event.
The food bank's first Canstruction was held last year near the food court at the mall. Four teams, comprised of local architectural firms, took between four and seven hours to build the structures.
About 2,000 cans went into each structure.
For a fee of $1 per vote or a donation of a canned good, anyone who stopped by the display could vote on their favorite structure. Awards were given for categories like best meal or structural integrity. The food bank made about $500 in profits.
That was after the food bank paid a $1,000 liability fee that the mall charged for using the space. So this year, O'Brien looked for a location that wouldn't cost as much.
Last month, Karen King, director of sales at Homewood Suites in Port Richey, heard about O'Brien's search from a friend who serves on the food bank's board of directors.
King offered to have her hotel — still under construction but planning to open in March — host the event for free.
With a cost-free location nailed down, all O'Brien needs now is firms willing to participate.
Like last year, O'Brien has tried to drum up interest by contacting AIA Tampa Bay, a professional organization for architects, and by inserting a flier in the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce's newsletter. She's hopeful the food bank can pull off the event.
"If we come together as a community," O'Brien said, "we can all benefit from this."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4609.