TOUTED for months as perhaps the largest public event ever hosted in Brooksville, the inaugural Florida Blueberry Festival in May created its share of hoopla and drew a lot of attention toward the small bucolic community.
Weeks before the event, a massive advertising blitz excitedly beckoned visitors to the center of Florida "blueberrydom," promising a good time for all.
If judged solely on figures provided by its organizers, it was a huge success.
The more than 40,000 people who descended on Brooksville's 14-square-block downtown district during the three-day event generated an estimated economic impact of $1.7 million on Hernando County. The county's tourism office tracked more than 313 room nights at motels and hotels. Area restaurants and businesses reported an uptick of $369,000 in sales tax revenue for the month, compared to 2011.
The event wasn't without its naysayers. Some downtown business owners complained that they were kept out of the loop when it came to planning. Organizers also drew the ire of a small citizens group worried that the small county-owned Hernando Park tennis courts would soon be demolished to make way for a permanent festival venue.
While the festival was deemed a success for the community, it earned a mere $4,000 profit after expenses were paid. More than $564,000 had been raised to stage it.
That said, festival chairwoman Michael Heard said next year's encore event, which she expects will cost about $200,000 to produce, needs to be done in a smarter, more economic fashion.
"We're going to have to work to make less do more," Heard said. "We learned a lot from the first one and made some mistakes. We don't intend to make them again."
Although sponsors such as Friendly Kia and the Florida Blueberry Growers Association are back on board, the 2013 event, scheduled for May 4 and 5, likely won't have nearly the budget of the inaugural festival.
And that means making some changes, Heard said. Gone will some of the more elaborate amenities, such as a fleet of shuttle buses to and from remote parking sites that cost organizers roughly $67,000 more than they brought in. And while next year's festival will likely feature fewer live entertainment stages, there will be a greater effort to attract more "name" acts that patrons will recognize.
Other improvements will include elimination of the bothersome "blueberry bucks," which proved to be confusing to many visitors looking to buy items from vendors. Next year's event also won't have a kickoff parade. Instead, organizers are planning a nighttime family fun event the weekend prior to the festival.
During the past several weeks, Heard has been lobbying local government officials to help pick up some of the cost of putting on the festival. Earlier this month, she approached county commissioners for $25,000 in sponsorship money to help with the expense of closing state roads for the event; she also asked them to consider closing the county government center at noon May 3 to make it easier for vendors to set up tents and booths.
Additionally, Heard has expressed interest in putting up fencing around the festival grounds so an admission fee can be collected.
"We're still very much in the planning stages right now," she said. "But we think we have a goal that we can achieve that will continue to make the blueberry festival a great event that will attract people to Hernando County for years to come."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.
The Blueberry Festival will return with a leaner budget and changes.