Thursday, January 18, 2018
Events

Chairwoman confident as third Florida Blueberry Festival prepares to open

BROOKSVILLE — For chairwoman Michael Heard, preparations for the 2014 Florida Blueberry Festival are vastly different than they were three years ago, when she was handed the reins to turn downtown Brooksville into Blueberry Central.

Yes, the pace is still hectic. It's not as manic, though, as it was for the inaugural event in 2012, when it seemed everything came with a huge learning curve.

Heard recalls the challenges she and her two-person volunteer staff encountered. Some were relatively easy to deal with; others seemed to have no workable solution. From irate business owners who questioned the need to close two downtown thoroughfares to protests from tennis players who objected to the temporary shutdown of public courts to dealing with a hot-headed bleacher company owner, she had to answer all of them.

At times, Heard, who was appointed by the nonprofit festival's board of directors, questioned why she volunteered to run the festival.

"I really felt sometimes that I may not be cut out for this kind of thing," she recalled. "I kept asking myself, is this really worth it?"

Heard has persevered, and says she has learned from every misstep, including spending way too much money on a third-tier country act last year that drew only a fraction of the hoped-for audience. She gladly takes any blame, but is eager to heap praise on the 300 volunteers who show up to help with parking, picking up trash and running children's activities, because she knows that they, like her, believe in the festival and the good that it does for Hernando County.

"It's a community partnership," Heard said recently as she stuffed envelopes containing thank-you notes to sponsors. "The people that make this festival work do it because it represents them and the place they call home."

This year's blueberry festival, which takes place Saturday and Sunday, is somewhat of a turning point, in that the level of success could determine the event's future direction. While Heard would like for it to become a self-sufficient enterprise, she also says the financial and in-kind sponsorship contributions provided by the county and city give those entities a sense of ownership.

"There are a lot of communities that would love to have an event like this," Heard said. "It's a small price to pay when you look at what you're getting in return."

In the meantime, Heard acknowledges that it has been good for her festival committee to learn to do more with much less as the event has evolved over the past three years. While the inaugural festival cost $564,000 to produce, this year's costs will total a little more than one-third of that.

But Heard says this weekend's festival comes with a high level of confidence. Vendor spaces are sold out. So are artist slots. Perhaps the most positive aspect this year, she says, is that the festival is almost completely in the black even before it begins, thanks largely to an aggressive fundraising campaign that raised more than $150,000 in cash and in-kind sponsorships.

"We've managed to build a strong partnership with people and companies who know that we're bringing lots of visitors to Hernando County," she said. In fact, she said, 90 percent of the $110,000 spent on advertising was directed outside the county.

But while Heard believes that the aesthetic lure of downtown Brooksville is adequate for the festival's present needs, she isn't sure that the location is optimal for an event that is expected to top last year's attendance of 33,000. The logistics and expense of closing two major highways, the lack of convenient parking and hilly terrain that is difficult for some patrons to navigate are all factors that work against the festival's continued growth, she said.

"At some point, we're going to have to address that as we move forward," Heard said.

She also believes that the event eventually will need a full-time director, plus a small staff that can handle the yearlong preparations.

"We're not the (Plant City) strawberry festival, and we don't ever plan to be," she said. "But in my opinion, this is going to continue to be a big thing in Hernando County. We need to make sure we're ready for that."

Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.

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