Tampa plans crackdown for a more civil Gasparilla parade

TAMPA — For Leland Baldwin, the low point of the Gasparilla celebration came last year when she tended to a teen found passed out with her pants around her ankles on a South Tampa street.

"There were people pouring beer on her," said Baldwin, who runs St. John's Safe House, where drunken or injured young people seek refuge.

A neighbor covered the girl with a towel. Baldwin called police officers, who got the girl into an ambulance.

"While we were doing all that, people were filming her. It was really depressing," Baldwin said.

City leaders and Gasparilla organizers hope to prevent similar scenes at Saturday's parade by coming down hard on underage drinking, people drinking outside permitted areas, public urination and defecation, fighting, open sex acts and other disorderly conduct.

The crackdown comes after people who live near the Bayshore Boulevard parade route complained about excessively bad behavior in their neighborhoods during last year's parade.

This year, while more than 1,100 law enforcement officers monitor the parade route, 275 officers — up from 225 last year — will patrol neighborhoods.

The additional personnel means officers can make more arrests, which topped 120 last year. No longer will they tolerate people walking down the street sipping a bottle of beer or using someone's yard as a bathroom, said assistant police chief Marc Hamlin.

In the past, officers might have given a simple verbal warning for those violations.

"Officers would be afraid to make an arrest for every open container of alcohol they saw because they'd be tied up for a while," Hamlin said. "We'd have nobody policing the event. Now we're designating officers to go in there and make arrests."

The Gasparilla parade, a 106-year-old Tampa tradition, started as a day for the city's button-down business and political elite to trade their suits for pirate gear, cut loose with a drink or two (or more), and parade through the streets. The masses cheered them on, chased after empty shell casings or begged for beads. Everyone celebrated the opening day of the Florida State Fair together at the parade's final destination, the fairgrounds near the University of Tampa.

Longtime Tampa residents remember it as a wholesome family affair. It was held on a Monday. Schools and businesses closed so everyone could participate.

Steve Plotz, now 60, recalls the excitement he felt as a young boy when the pirates shot their guns.

"Like every other kid, I'd run out to pick up the shells," he said. "It made a lasting impression."

And the Gasparilla parade gave him his first experience as an entrepreneur when at the age of 13 he set up a cart along the parade route and sold sodas.

"I think I ended up making like $45 and, oh my God, I thought I was rich," he said.

Some say Gasparilla's transformation into a day when normally quiet neighborhoods are overrun with drunken teenagers, lawns become urinals and homeowners feel compelled to pay for temporary protective fencing reflects loosening social mores.

"People have become much more base," said Baldwin. "I really don't think it's Gasparilla. I think it's how we parent our children."

Others say the parade's personality began to shift in 1988, when Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the social and philanthropic club that created the event, moved it to Saturday with hopes of turning it into a nationally recognized event.

By all accounts, they succeeded.

"When Gasparilla was on a Monday, even Pinellas County, they were all in school. They had to work. It was very much a different animal," said Darrell Stefany, whose company, EventMakers, was hired by the Krewe in 1990 to help plan and promote the festivities.

A few years later, Ye Mystic Krewe began encouraging more crews to participate, bringing the total number involved from fewer than a dozen in 1995 to more than 70 this year.

In 1998, the celebration attracted its first title sponsor, Southwest Airlines. This year's title sponsor is the Seminole Hard Rock Cafe. Throughout the years, lower-level sponsors have also included Miller beer, Budweiser and Captain Morgan.

Another boost came in 2001, when Tampa hosted the Super Bowl the same weekend as the Gasparilla parade. That gave international exposure to the Tampa tradition.

"We found all of a sudden that when out-of-town travel writers wrote about Tampa as a destination, they highlighted Gasparilla," said Bob Morrison, executive director of the Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association.

Area hotels, particularly those downtown, see the benefit, with people from across the bay and across the country turning their parade experience into an overnight stay.

Stefany said he now gets calls from people all over the world seeking parade information. Attendance has swelled from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

Stefany, who now promotes the parade under the auspices of his new company, EventFest, says a 2007 study by a Florida State University professor puts the economic impact to the city at $46 million during the Gasparilla parade and the Children's Parade a week earlier.

And that's just the way its founders would have wanted it, Stefany said, noting that the parade was started more than 100 years ago as an economic development tool at the urging of the Tampa Board of Trade.

"It's done at a level now that's beyond what some of the forefathers dreamed it could be," he said.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio says that the parade's growth tracks the city's evolution into a major business center, convention site and location for national events like the Super Bowl.

She said she took residents' complaints seriously because a big tourist event with a significant economic impact is a chance for the city put its best foot forward. In addition to committing more police officers to the event, she helped with a huge campaign urging better behavior. Among her biggest concerns: the teenage drinkers.

"It's dangerous for a 15- or 16-year-old to be in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people and get to the point where they can't take care of themselves," she said.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Fast facts

Gasparilla changes

Here's a look at what makes this year different:

• The number of police officers patrolling neighborhoods will increase to 275, up from 225 last year.

• The number of portable toilets has been doubled. There will be 1,600 of them, up from 800 last year.

• To thin out crowds, the waterside reserved seating area will be limited to Bayshore Boulevard between Bay to Bay Boulevard and Howard Avenue.

• The parade route will extend downtown to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

• Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Mike Alstott will serve as grand marshal.

• Gasparilla organizers, city and school officials launched a campaign called "Responsibility Is the Key," to inform people about the new zero tolerance approach to underage drinking, open containers of alcohol outside designated areas and other violations.

Tampa plans crackdown for a more civil Gasparilla parade 01/24/10 [Last modified: Sunday, January 24, 2010 10:32pm]

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