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Greater New Port Richey Main Street leaders fight for funding, festivals

NEW PORT RICHEY — The leaders of Greater New Port Richey Main Street, still reeling from the City Council's sudden vote this week to cut their funding, said they hoped the council would soon change its mind.

"It's a one-word game plan: survival," said Steve Schurdell, first vice president of the group that runs festivals and other efforts to promote downtown. "It's not going to take a long time for the shortsightedness of this decision to come to light. Our plan is to be here when the economy returns or common sense and logic takes over."

But the city's decision Tuesday to keep what was to be a $30,000 grant to the group showed no sign of being overturned.

"I'm looking at this as an issue of fairness," said council member Bob Langford, who voted against continuing the grant. "Everybody is being forced to cut back. It's not just Greater New Port Richey Main Street, it's the city itself. People in their everyday lives are cutting back."

Schurdell, a managing partner for a local independent radio group, said the Main Street board of directors was doing its best to stay optimistic. Supporters will likely show up in force for Tuesday's City Council meeting, he said, in an attempt to convince Langford and council member Ginny Miller that the city's contract with the group is worth saving.

For the last 20 years, Main Street has relied mostly on sponsorships, the city grant, and sales of food and drinks at events, a quarterly report shows. The St. Petersburg Times is one of numerous corporate sponsors. But with the grant gone, Schurdell said, the group would need to place more pressure on corporate partners to drum up sponsor dollars, which in themselves are becoming "more and more difficult to attract."

Without the city's money, the group will likely have to cut back to "grass roots" events like its downtown strolls, strawberry festivals and farmers markets, Schurdell said. High-cost events like the fireworks-lit Main Street Blast and Cotee River Seafood Festival — made infamous this year after an alligator bit the handler at a reptile show — will likely need major cutbacks.

"The feeling is Main Street will continue, no matter what," he said. "The high-profile events? Probably not."

Schurdell said Judy DeBella Thomas, a council member and the group's executive director for the last decade, was "disappointed and devastated" by the vote. She travelled to Punta Gorda this week for a Florida Main Street conference, where she would accept on the group's behalf four awards and a 20-year plaque.

John Gillis, owner of the Friendly KIA dealership on U.S. 19, one of the group's supporters, was shocked Thursday to hear of the council's vote.

"I'm speechless," Gillis said. "I don't know where they think it's going to come from."

Gillis, whose company underwrote the music for the last Main Street Blast, believed the sponsorship was a good investment, as his employees got to use it as a summer picnic. He said he would continue to support the group but didn't know how much else he could do.

"We'll figure out some way to have it," Gillis said. "And hopefully they'll reconsider."

Group president Charlie Skelton, who works as the managing director for the Richey Suncoast Theatre, said he would meet soon with the board and its accountant on how to stretch its tight budget even further. The group's five big events, which drew 100,000 visitors last year, won't be the only things to suffer, he said. The city's faltering downtown, which he said the group had worked to fill with new tenants, could also be left behind.

"Without an organization like Main Street to be the spark plug for business, there would be nothing there," Skelton said. "It's insanity for $30,000. It is just beyond the mind."

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6244.

Greater New Port Richey Main Street leaders fight for funding, festivals 09/16/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 16, 2010 8:44pm]
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