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Flapjack's cancellation leaves void that Swampfest hopes to fill

The Land O'Lakes Flapjack Festival is going the way of the drive-in movie theater, Oldsmobiles and mom-and-pop grocers — bits of Americana doomed by changing markets.

The Flapjack Festival, the annual multiday fundraiser by the Central Pasco Chamber of Commerce, is canceled for 2009 and perhaps beyond. The chamber made its decision in May, but news of the festival's demise was slow to circulate until a weekly newspaper publicized it this week.

It is unfortunate. The central portion of the county loses an iconic mainstay of its autumn calendar and we parents lose an inexpensive and fun way to entertain the offspring for a day.

The downfall began a year ago when the chamber moved the festival 20 miles away to Dade City after being unable to find a suitable alternative location near its longtime home, the Land O'Lakes Community Center. A wider U.S. 41 made the property along that route more attractive for development and less likely to be leased as short-term parking for a once-a-year festival. (Certainly, drive-in theater operators can relate to that paradox of growth hindering, not helping business.)

But the move forced a date change from the traditional first full weekend in November to the final weekend in October and the festival found itself competing against Halloween, Pasco High's homecoming, longtime residents' resistance to change and even Mother Nature, which brought two days of rain. Attendance fell as did a desire to repeat the effort in 2009.

Though it receives a county tourism grant to advertise the festival outside Pasco, the Central Pasco Chamber exists largely without government subsidy or a friendly municipal rental agreement that can help a nonprofit business group's bottom line. The financial risk of a failed fundraiser in a down economy was too great for the chamber to accept.

"The Flapjack is part of our lives. It's just a sad day,'' acknowledged Kathy Dunkley, the chamber's executive director.

Indeed. I commented on this same topic more than three years ago when the chamber revealed its search for a new site.

Yes, it is hokey, particularly to outsiders, but the endearing image of people in pancake costumes parading down School Road has been a part of the Land O'Lakes community conscience for more than 30 years.

It offered free pancakes to lure in the crowds, a carnival midway jammed with children, local entertainers, business booths, a parade, a 5K run, a children's beauty pageant, a best legs contest for male contestants, and an honorary mayor's race defined entirely by fundraising. Visit the Flapjack Festival on the first Saturday in November and you could bump into nearly everyone in town including people seeking public office. Gov. Jeb Bush stumped for re-election there in 2004 and candidates for sheriff, state legislator, Congress, County Commission and School Board were always in the crowd.

The chamber intends to keep the 5K run, pageant and honorary mayor contest, but the central fixture of a midway and three-day festival is no longer. Besides being the chamber's largest fundraiser, the Flapjack also allowed local nonprofit agencies and school groups to piggyback on the money-making opportunities for the weekend.

"The whole community profits from it, and it is so wonderful to see all the smiles on the kids' faces,'' said Dunkley. "That's going to be missed.''

Maybe not.

Already one group is trying to patch together the community fabric. The Land O'Lakes High School Booster Club presented its first Swampfest in late February as an attempt to rekindle the enthusiasm for a Flapjack-like celebration. It even billed itself as "your new community festival,'' a not-so-subtle poke at the chamber's decision to move its fundraiser to Dade City.

The carnival, entertainment and even professional wrestling matches were held on the high school grounds in an unorthodox, but nonetheless, highly visible example of collocation of community assets.

One of the Swampfest organizers, Mike Connor, said Tuesday the festival will be repeated and may target the community center as its new home and the first weekend in November as its new date.

"Absolutely. It's a great weekend,'' said Connor, ''and there is nothing else going on.''

Which is exactly why Land O'Lakes needs a community festival.

Flapjack's cancellation leaves void that Swampfest hopes to fill 07/07/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 7, 2009 5:32pm]
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