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Hernando leaders hope blueberry festival plans take root

BROOKSVILLE — Plenty of Florida places throw parties for revered fruit.

There are festivals for strawberries in Plant City, watermelons in Chiefland and kumquats in Dade City, among many others.

Why not blueberries in Brooksville?

A committee of local business and community leaders is slated to pose that question to the Hernando County Tourist Development Council during an 11 a.m. meeting today at the downtown Brooksville library branch.

The committee has been quietly working on a plan for several months and the vision is now ripe enough to pitch to the tourist council as a way to bring people to the county and its seat, said Sue Rupe, the county's tourism coordinator and a member of the committee.

"It looks like it can be a great draw to this community," she said. "It's just exciting."

Rupe and committee chairwoman Michael Heard were reluctant to offer many details this week ahead of the presentation. But generally, the goals are to raise money for charitable groups and rev up the local economy.

"We're trying to do this for the benefit of everyone," Heard said. "The county, the city, the service groups, and hopefully we'll be able to garner a lot of support for that."

Heard is president of the newly formed Brooksville Vision Foundation. Among the nonprofit foundation's goals is to "work side by side with local partners to promote and implement positive economic development" in Brooksville, according to its mission statement.

The blueberry festival could do that and raise money for service clubs, too, Heard said.

The idea was planted some six months ago in the motor home of Dennis Wilfong, the city's ambassador of business and economic development. Wilfong took a group of city officials and other community leaders to DeLand in Volusia County to get a sense of how that city has reinvigorated its downtown core.

Hosting a multitude of events to bring in visitors seemed to be one of the keys, Wilfong recalled. On the way back, the tourists got to talking about what might work in Brooksville.

About the same time, local Rotary Club members were seeking new ways to raise money for charitable causes, and a local grower had approached city officials with the idea of a fruit festival, said Heard, who rode along on the DeLand trip.

The idea for the blueberry festival has since taken root.

"We thought it would be good to pool our resources," she said.

The first step is to get the tourist council to provide some seed money for a Web site and a nationwide art contest to solicit designs for the festival's logo. Calls for entries would be sent to art schools throughout the country, Heard said.

The plan so far calls for a smaller-scale, one-day kickoff event in May of next year — to coordinate with picking season — and then a two-day event in 2012, Rupe said.

"I think it's an awesome idea," said Lisa Callea, president of the Brooksville Business Alliance. The alliance has for years been putting on its Market on Main Street during the cooler months and held its first evening market last month.

"I'm always on board for something new and energetic," Callea said.

There are at least a few other blueberry festivals in Florida, including a small one held for the first time in May in Tarpon Springs and visited by the Brooksville committee.

Among the others is the Wellborn Blueberry Festival in Wellborn, a Suwannee County hamlet, population 2,500, about 10 miles south of the junction of Interstates 10 and 75.

The festival put on by Wellborn Community Association began 17 years ago as a fundraiser for the association, which in turn donates to local charitable causes, said president Wendell Snowden. Back then the festival was a one-day affair, and Snowden encouraged the association to expand it to two days when he took over.

"You bring people in that stay in," he said. "Hotel rooms, gas stations, campgrounds. People were very pleased."

The local tourist development council provides support for the event along with a host of sponsors.

"Advertising is key," Snowden said. "The more advertising you do, the bigger and faster you're going to grow."

Rows of blueberry bushes don't dominate Hernando vistas as strawberry plants do in Plant City, but the county's blueberry industry has enjoyed an infusion of energy in recent years.

Blueberries have gone from a niche crop to the mainstream in Hernando County as growers found both the climate and the market to be favorable, Stacy Strickland, director of the county Extension Office, told the Times earlier this year. As of the most recent agricultural census, in 2007, sales of all berries totaled $3.7 million, but that figure has climbed significantly since then, Strickland said.

Dan Ebbecke has been growing blueberries since 1996 and currently has about 13 acres at his Masaryktown farm. He has already been approached by committee members seeking feedback.

The prospect of a festival meant to honor his beloved berry is an exciting one, Ebbecke said.

"I'm totally stoked about it," Ebbecke said. "I've been waiting patiently for somebody to ask me to get involved."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Hernando leaders hope blueberry festival plans take root 07/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 1, 2010 10:10pm]
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