LARGO — They won't be clowning around this weekend in Largo.
Seriously, this is no laughing matter. There will be a lack of clowns at the 19th annual Touch-a-Truck event from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Largo Central Park. Usually there are more than 100 clowns at the popular event, where thousands of children climb into fire engines and ambulances and bucket trucks, honking the horns and running the sirens.
Why the change? It's because Uptown Clowns, a local nonprofit group that supples all those clowns, got into a tiff with the city of Largo. They've put down the grease paint and the red rubber noses, and they're walking away in their oversized shoes.
"So, why aren't there any clowns? The answer unfortunately comes down to dollars and cents," Uptown Clowns business manager Dick Carmen wrote in an open letter to the public.
In its defense, the city says these clowns have been getting a sweetheart deal for too long.
The dispute is about rental fees.
For many years, the group has held a state clown convention called Florida Clown Day at the Largo Cultural Center on the same day that Touch-a-Truck is held in the park next door.
Up to 150 clowns would show up. The group would get a room at the cultural center for free in exchange for providing clowns for Touch-a-Truck, where they would paint kids' faces, do magic tricks and make balloon animals.
But last year, Largo charged the group $1,519 for its use of city facilities for Clown Day. The same fees would have applied this year. The clowns say they can't afford the city's "exorbitant" fees and that Largo is breaking an 18-year-old agreement.
"We've attempted to resolve these issues with city officials," Carmen wrote. "However, our concerns have fallen on deaf ears with feelings of anger, sorrow and disappointment."
City officials say Largo never had a formal agreement with the clowns. Back when Largo Central Park opened in 1996, the city waived fees for various groups to "jump-start" events at the park, said Joan Byrne, Largo's recreation, parks and arts director.
"Over the years … the clown group came to enjoy special treatment that frankly was not in line with the fee ordinance nor with the treatment of any other group partnering with the city," Byrne wrote to the City Commission.
The Uptown Clowns made money on Clown Day through vendor fees and food concessions. "The Florida Clown Day event brings minimal benefit to the Touch-a-Truck event but huge benefits to the clown organization," Byrne wrote. "They are looking for the city to waive all of their fees so that they could do a fundraiser that benefits the Uptown Clowns."
So this year, Florida Clown Day will be held Feb. 1 at Lakewood United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg.
This year's Largo Touch-a-Truck will still have a few clowns, and some new wrinkles: a big sand pile with toy trucks and a sheriff's helicopter will land at 1 p.m. The event is moving on without the Uptown Clowns.
"I think we'll be okay without them," said Jessica Newsome, Largo's special events coordinator. "We'll have a few clowns doing face painting and balloon animals. Instead of 150 clowns, it's going to be three."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151.