This weekend will be the 25th Ribfest, bringing more than 60,000 people to Vinoy Park for three days of radio-friendly music and napkin-friendly food.
It's hard to believe it now, but few people thought it could be done when Tom Whiteman first came to the Exchange Club of Northeast St. Petersburg with the idea of charging money for three days of music and food in the park. Other than the Grand Prix races, no one had ever tried to fence off Straub Park and charge people to get in.
"They laughed at me," Whiteman says now of his first attempts to get local radio stations to take part.
The Exchange Club needed a fundraising idea to replace the Southland Powerboat Regatta, which was canceled because of the condition of Lake Maggiore. Whiteman came up the idea for Ribfest when he attended a similar event in Naperville, Ill., over July 4 weekend.
Though this is the 25th Ribfest, it hasn't been 25 years. It was started in March of 1990 as part of the Festival of States and had two events in a couple of years when it moved the festival to November. Tickets were $3 per day or $6 for a three-day pass and the big headliners were the Turtles and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.
Then as now, the event featured award-winning ribs by some of the best barbecue teams from across the country.
People were so sure the idea would fail, Whiteman said, Exchange Club membership plunged from 85 to 42. There was sniping about charging people to use public land. It was only with the help of more influential club members that Ribfest gained grudging approval.
Whiteman told a newspaper reporter at the time he hoped they could draw 20,000 to 30,000 people. And if not? "I'll just leave town."
But once the smoke started rising from the grills, people started converging on the park. The cooks ran out of ribs three times as almost 60,000 people poured into Straub Park in a three-day period, raising $200,000 for children's charities.
"When the band took stage on Saturday night I remember looking over the crowd thinking, 'I did it,' " Whiteman said. "I have to admit I got a little choked up."
Nowadays, Ribfest is at the more spacious Vinoy Park, charges $16 to $20 and still relies on easy-listening rock and country acts that appeal to a crowd with disposable income (This year it's REO Speedwagon, Sister Hazel, Steppenwolf and country's Justin Moore). It has given more than $3.3 million to local children's charities since 1990, said Kathy Plummer, president of the Exchange Clubs of Florida.
When country music was added to the lineup in 2009, the fire department stopped ticket sales during the event because the crowd had grown too large. Earlier that year, the club had signed a little-known country act, the Zac Brown Band, which then went on to record the No. 1 song on the country charts that summer, and it helped Ribfest draw a record-setting crowd of more than 30,000 in one day.
Whiteman, who had booked the band in February, has a thank-you note from Zac Brown that reads, "Thank you for having faith in me when no one else did."
Whiteman knows the feeling.