Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Cajun/Zydeco Crawfish Festival pinched to death by new city fees

In tough times, it's not unusual for some events and festivals to fold for financial reasons.

But when organizers of the event that folds blame new city fees, it raises the question: How much does the city value cultural events?

Back in October, St. Petersburg raised the daily fee to lease its parks. The fee to rent Vinoy Park rose from $30 to $300. So for a three-day festival, organizers are being asked to pay $900 before booking the first act.

It wasn't long after the new fees were implemented before the first casualty surfaced.

The Cajun/Zydeco Crawfish Festival, which has been around since 2000 and held in early March, announced its cancellation for 2012, citing the costs of doing business with the city.

When reached Friday, Mayor Bill Foster was not aware of the festival's cancellation, but acknowledged asking the city staff to come up with a fee schedule that was "cost neutral.''

"There were ancillary costs that we were eating on every event" in Vinoy Park, he said.

The festival's demise goes well beyond the new fees. A lot goes into the $15 ticket patrons pay to attend the event.

For more than a decade, Benny Sylvester and Jerry Decou of the Cajun Connection put on the festival along the waterfront.

The festival got its start in 2000 in what is now Albert Whitted Park at 107 Eighth Ave. SE. But that was before the current version of the Grand Prix came to town. City officials informed festival organizers that the racecourse would force the event to move, and suggested Vinoy Park.

"We went from zero to about $23,000 to host the festival," Sylvester said.

It was popular, drawing 11,000 to 13,000 patrons each year. Last year, organizers ran out of its 15,000 pounds of crawfish on the second day. The entertainment — live Cajun and zydeco music and dance lessons — wasn't bad either.

But over the years, the fees became too taxing. In November, Sylvester and his team announced the cancellation of the festival for this year.

"Everybody is just brokenhearted," Sylvester said. "We had people coming in from all over the country and Canada, but the cost of doing business (with the city) is just too, too much."

The nearly $1,000 fee was just the tip of the iceberg for the folks at the Cajun Connection, a nonprofit group in Thonotosassa that started the festival.

Sylvester said other fees charged by the city run up to $30,000 for the 2 1/2-day festival, including an $18,000 bill from the Police Department.

"They would give us a piece of paper with the listed fees, but it was always more by the end of the festival,'' Sylvester said, "so we had no idea what it would really cost going in."

But police officials have an explanation.

"We prepare cost estimates based on the application, attendance and the history of the event so we know what to expect," said Sgt. Gary Dukeman, who leads the special-events unit at the St. Pete Police Department. "Barring anything unusual, cost estimates are based on the hours and individual needs for the organizers.''

Police officials dispute the amount Sylvester said he paid for services. According to Dukeman, the bill was $12,199, but he added that Sylvester incurred late fees.

There was a brief time when the festival was profitable.

"In 2004 we made almost $70,000," Sylvester said.

But last year that quickly changed when the city offered less help.

"Before we made even $1, it cost about $140,000 for talent, insurance, advertising, sound and fencing," he said.

Event organizers are working out a deal to move the event to the Manatee County Fairgrounds in 2013.

Foster said he didn't want to lose the festival and called Sylvester on Friday in hopes of working something out.

"If we're losing events of cultural significance, then I'll absolutely revisit that,'' Foster said. "I didn't see the fee increase as being a deal breaker. I'm trying to get his costs down."

Sylvester said he thinks it's too late to save the festival this year because most bands have been booked elsewhere.

"If it's too late for 2012, lets look at 2013," Foster said.

Here's hoping Foster can work something out. Festivals and other cultural events shouldn't be nickeled and dimed out of existence. When that happens, residents and local businesses lose.

Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 893-8874.

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