Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla sought a new executive officer to oversee its membership and massive parade, someone undaunted by a daylong convergence of boats and floats, hordes of drinking pirates and throngs of tourists, someone to tame the annual Gasparilla beast, promote the city and keep everyone safe.
Col. Don Barnes' qualifications overflowed like treasure in a pirate's chest. He grew up in New Orleans, the city that inspired Tampa's 50-plus social krewes. Then he spent 26 years serving the Air Force, specializing in manpower and personnel.
Barnes, 49, holds a master's degree in human resource management, served Air Force bases from Okinawa to Baghdad, and worked at the Pentagon, where he was stationed on Sept. 11, 2001.
He retired as MacDill Air Force Base commander, and began working for the krewe, in July. At MacDill he was responsible for 2,200 people assigned to six squadrons and a $50 million budget.
Barnes and his wife, Kathy, an administrator at the University of South Florida, live in Tampa Palms.
On Jan. 28, Barnes will witness his second Gasparilla. But he knows the drill: Muster the troops, ration the rum, support the mission. As Barnes told a reporter last week, he's ready to build bridges, figuratively and literally.
Did your military background cinch your hiring?
I think it was very helpful already having great relationships with the Tampa Police Department, county sheriff, Tampa General (Hospital), the Coast Guard. As head of Group Command, 6th Mission Support Group at MacDill, I was the equivalent of a city manager. I owned the police, fire, telephone service, golf course, bowling, child care, public works, civil engineering.
Tampa has a love-hate relationship with your 107-year-old pirate krewe. We love parades, loathe bad behavior. Will you rein in your unruly troops?
While they may look like a ragtag group, they're a very professional organization with the primary purpose of supporting the Tampa community. They're a lot like the military, although I don't think I could ever get them to salute me. Safety is critical throughout everything the krewe is involved in. Last year, an extremely successful campaign for underage drinking had a very positive effect. Arrests and incidences were way down. We plan to continue that. We just renewed a five-year agreement with EventFest as our primary contractor for the children's and day parade. We work very carefully to prepare strategic planning with vendors and the city to be the eyes and ears for anything that doesn't look safe or smart.
You've been going to Mardi Gras since you were 13. Now as the gatekeeper of Tampa's historic parade, do you foresee tweaking Ye Mystic Krewe traditions?
My family lives in Slidell (Louisiana), and we went to Mardi Gras every year. My dad was a TV weatherman, and he did the forecasts for all the events. New Orleans was a great place to grow up as a teenager in the '70s. As the new person, I will ensure we stick with the traditions but try to make some evolutionary changes. I want to do a better job of spreading the word on some of the good things we're doing. One example is the Grenadiers, one of our outreach groups working on charitable events. We do the Salvation Army red kettle, and we'll have a float in the Veterans Day parade at the VA hospital.
With luck, the city says the Platt Street Bridge will be finished well before Gasparilla. But what if not?
I go to monthly meetings, and it's on track to open in January. The contractors have lots of incentives to finish on time. The parade goes along Bayshore Boulevard to Brorein Street, not Platt, so the biggest impact would be on pedestrian traffic. We have some ideas of what else we might do, but we'll stick with the plan until otherwise necessary.
Reach Amy Scherzer at email@example.com or (813) 226-3332.