PLANT CITY — There's no denying pork's appeal.
The annual Pig Jam barbecue festival has grown from a few thousand attendees to 20,000 since professional and amateur barbecuers started vying for cash prizes 10 years ago.
But now organizers are wondering whether staying put at the Randy L. Larson Softball Four-Plex off Park Road makes sense. They met with city officials a few months ago in part to brainstorm possible venues.
"It's a great facility, but we're getting to a point where we're running out of room," said Chris Sparkman, chairman of the Pig Jam committee at the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the one-day festival each November.
Adding to the concern, the city is looking to sell or lease Plant City Stadium and the Four-Plex to avoid paying for maintenance.
Last week, officials received a proposal for the 75-acre site from Big League Dreams USA, a California company that hosts youth tournaments and builds replica Major League Baseball ballparks.
"We're just starting to look at that now," City Manager Greg Horwedel said Tuesday.
Any decision about the site won't come until June and likely won't effect this year's Pig Jam, he said.
Regardless, organizers say staying put might not be an option. Growing crowds are one reason. Another is that relocating will enable more and larger activities, vendors and country music acts — ensuring the festival's financial future.
Co-founder Mark Poppell said that given its growth, it might make sense to consider expanding to two days, like other barbecue festivals around the country. A bigger and better venue with more parking could help to make that happen.
"That event is limited only by the size of the venue," he said. "Taking everything into consideration, the teams of vendors and the parking, we're pretty much maxed out."
Chamber officials won't reveal how much the Pig Jam earns, but say the event is its biggest draw of the year.
The chamber earns money off parking concessions at $5 per car and takes a 20 percent cut from vendor sales. Admission is free. Proceeds benefit the chamber's scholarship fund. The 70 barbecue teams compete for $17,000 in prize money under judging by the Kansas City Barbecue Society.
Moving the festival would allow for more vendors and more revenue, further enhancing the chamber. The question officials wrestle with is where to move to.
The Strawberry Festival grounds, given its parking and water and electrical hookups for vendors and RVs, makes the most sense, they say. But even that isn't a slam dunk. Concerns about beer and insurance liability derailed talks between the chamber and Strawberry Festival board a few years ago.
Except for the annual Rotary Club Wild Game Cook-Off and a handful of small evening events, alcohol sales are off-limits at the grounds. Opponents cite insurance and moral concerns.
"A majority of the board members do not want alcohol served there. They don't want it sold in a family atmosphere," said Mayor Mike Sparkman, Chris Sparkman's father and a Strawberry Festival board member.
Pig Jam organizers could drop the beer sales, but beer and barbecue go hand-in-hand for many of the thousands of attendees. At the very least, nixing beer would hurt the bottom line.
"It would be hard to go without it," Chris Sparkman said. "Alcohol is secondary at our event, but it's a big piece of our revenue."
Ron Gainey, immediate past president of the Strawberry Festival board, says the sides should at least sit down again. The Strawberry Festival grounds might be a good choice, particularly if Pig Jam organizers want to add more country music acts and attract bigger crowds.
"We have the facilities to support the continued growth of that event," he said. "We have a perfect situation and I would welcome them to come to the festival. It might be time to re-entertain that idea."
He said the November event doesn't conflict with any Strawberry Festival activities, and the midway area could easily accommodate the crowds and is near parking.
The sides would need to agree on beer sales and insurance liability. Gainey estimated a policy of $6 million in liability coverage would satisfy the board. Beer is another matter. It might be permitted at a beer garden, as it is at the Florida State Fair in Tampa, though even that idea is likely to provoke lengthy debate by board members.
"I personally don't have a problem with beer, but I would lean toward a beer garden than having people walking around drinking beer," he said. "I'd want it contained."
It might be months, or even a year, before any decision is made on whether to move. Whatever happens will be left to the Pig Jam committee and they would likely explore options in addition to the Strawberry Festival grounds, such as downtown Plant City, the Plant City Airport and the Hillsborough County Fairgrounds, just west of Plant City off State Road 60 near Sydney Washer Road.
"We can stay here for now," Chris Sparkman said, referring to the Four-Plex. "It's not dire that we move right away, but it's something in the back of our minds. It's something we may have to look at soon."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.