It has been seven years since Hernando County dropped its first tangerine to ring in the new year. Since then, Brooksville's whimsical answer to New York's storied Times Square countdown celebration has garnered quite a following.
Since its inaugural outing, the free event has grown substantially, leaving organizer Wayne Vutech to believe that a homegrown celebration that is free of alcohol and with an emphasis on fun for kids is something of which the community can be proud.
"We've never had a problem getting the support we need to put it on every year," said Vutech, owner of Archer Painting and a man with deep ties to the Hernando business community.
Even in a strained economy, Vutech found ample help bringing together this year's event, which will begin at 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Jerome Brown Community Center complex at Tom Varn Park. He snared a supply of soft drinks from Coca-Cola, and bottled water from Crystal Springs. From Slattery's Peanuts he was able to come up with enough snacks to give to each of the 400 or so kids expected to show up.
"Businesses have been great to us despite the tough times," Vutech said. "To me, it shows just how much they care about the community. It's what makes this event a dream come true for me."
Back in December 2002, Vutech launched what he once called his "harebrained idea" as a salute to the area's historical notation of being the tangerine capital of the United States during the 1920s.
He and his wife, Jean, had painstakingly constructed a 3-foot lighted tangerine that could be dropped precisely at midnight. A couple of hundred people showed up ready to party. But about 30 minutes till midnight, a torrential rain forced everyone inside the community center.
"It was a bit of a struggle bringing the ball down in the rain, but we got it done," Vutech said.
A tradition had been born.
Vutech says the event draws upward of 1,000 revelers. And though it may not have the glitz and glamor of its Big Apple cousin, people seem to be attracted by its bucolic qualities.
Said Vutech: "People come up to me all the time and say what a great time they've had. It's nice to know that you can have something that unifies people and provides them a little fun, too."
Vutech credits a list of loyal helpers whom he says have made the event a success, including volunteers from the Junior Service League of Brooksville, the Brooksville Rotary Club and the city of Brooksville.
Vutech, however, says he wouldn't mind finding a few more volunteers.
"It's definitely something that doesn't get done by itself," he said. "You're talking about an event that draws nearly a thousand people. We're spread a little thin at times."
Vutech said this year's event will be even more grand. In addition to free hot dogs, chips, sodas and T-shirts to the first 500 revelers, the event will feature entertainment by singer Mickie Taylor. In addition, the Flying W Ranch will be giving away tangerines.
"The nice thing about it is that there's something for people of all ages," he said.
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.