BROOKSVILLE — Few would argue the benefits that Brooksville received last year when it served as host to the inaugural Florida Blueberry Festival.
The three-day event, with its array of food booths, arts and craft vendors, and free entertainment, drew thousands of visitors who might not otherwise have ventured into the sleepy downtown business district.
Now, the nonprofit organization that is planning to stage the event again May 4-5 is asking the city to be "all in" when it comes to supporting the festival. The City Council voted 4-0 Monday, with Joe Bernardini absent, to give more than $25,000 in assistance to festival organizers.
That includes $20,000 in cash, $3,500 in fee waivers for fire, police and other city services, and $1,740 for overtime for city administrative workers helping out with the event. In return, the city will be known as the event's co-title sponsor.
Last year's festival was paid for entirely by organizers, and festival chairwoman Michael Heard said she originally intended for her organization to once again pick up the tab. But in speaking to individual council members, she said, she realized there was strong interest in the city being more than just the host for the event.
"Brooksville has always been a major focal point in our marketing efforts," Heard said. "Look at the photos in our ads and brochures and what do you see? Images of downtown Brooksville."
The grant is the largest the council has given to a privately sponsored event in recent memory. Two years ago, council members, in the name of austerity, voted to eliminate fee waivers for parades and festivals. The program was reinstated in October.
City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha said Monday that the city is on better financial footing and that the money, which will come from a nonallocated contingency fund, will have little impact come budget time.
Council members agreed that the city's commitment to the event brings many tangible benefits. It's closely associated with Brooksville and helps to build a positive image of the municipality.
"You can't buy that kind of publicity," said Mayor Lara Bradburn. "It sends a message that we're a strong, vibrant community that is doing positive things."
Last year's blueberry festival, which cost more than $564,000 to stage, earned $4,000 in profit after expenses. Heard said that this year's event, which has a budget of about $200,000, will be leaner by design. Gone will be costly amenities like a fleet of shuttle buses to ferry patrons to and from remote parking sites. And the event won't have a kickoff parade.
"We're focusing solely on what will bring people downtown to have a good time," Heard said.
To make a profit, Heard said that she plans to cordon off the downtown festival area with security fencing and charge admission of $5 for adults and $2 for children.
"We did our research, and we found very few objections to charging admission," she said.
Heard said she is seeking other public support as well. She plans to ask the Hernando County Commission next week to help out with the cost of temporarily closing Jefferson and Broad streets during the festival.
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.