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Pier 60 festival casts a line for financial help

Pam Pettinato isn't worried yet.

But when Labor Day rolls around, the Sunsets at Pier 60 Festival will lose a major source of revenue as the concession stands revert to a private vendor.

Unless some corporate sponsors stand up to the tune of $25,000 to $30,000, the 16-month-old festival might go under. That's a prospect Pettinato, the pier manager, doesn't even want to consider.

"There are too many corporate dollars out there that could be served well at this festival," she said. "It's my job to find them."

The city of Clearwater gave the Sunsets at Pier 60 its blessing in March 1995, in the hopes of drawing more people to Clearwater Beach. The festival operates 260 days a year, Thursday through Monday.

On slow nights it draws fewer than 1,000 people, Pettinato said. But sometimes crowds as large as 5,000 gather to watch the sunset and shop from the crafters, she said.

Modeled after the daily festival in Key West's Mallory Square, Sunsets at Pier 60 hasn't consistently drawn entertainers in the summertime. On Friday evening, the only entertainment in sight was Vrehodus, a jazz band made up of musicians from Largo High School.

"We've been to Key West," said Audrey Allen, who came from Michigan to visit her aunt. "So far it's not even close."

Pettinato blames the lack of entertainers on the construction at the Pier 60 park, which blocks the view of the pier from the road.

The city plans to finish construction by Labor Day, and, Pettinato said, performers and the crowds they draw will have more room.

Once the park opens, Pettinato believes, professional street entertainers known as "buskers" will become permanent fixtures at the festival. "We'll have the same kind of regular performers as Key West," she said.

The city supports the festival by not charging it rent and giving other support, such as free electricty.

Pettinato said she has no plans to ask the city for money. "I believe in the private sector," she said.

On Friday night, 15 crafters were peddling their wares on the pier, three for the first time. Each crafter pays a $6 nightly fee; Pettinato wants to average 35 crafters a day.

In its first year, the festival had only five to 10 crafters every night.

The festival has more than $17,000 in cash reserves. Pettinato said that's enough to get it through the winter.

But the festival's biggest source of revenue _ $30,000 in commission and fees from food vendors _ will vanish when the new Pier 60 concession center opens Labor Day.

The new concession center will share its profits with the city of Clearwater, not with the festival.

Pettinato dreams of finding a big-money corporate sponsor that will kick in the lost revenue.

"Can you imagine Kodak's Sunsets at Pier 60? It would be perfect," she muses.

Robbi Sheehan has been selling gemstone jewelry on the pier since the festival started. "I think it's a wonderful thing for tourism as well as the locals," she said.

But she said the festival needs local support to thrive.

Julie Nichols, owner of Seafood & Sunsets at Julie's and Flamingo Beachfront Suites, has served as a festival trustee for a year. A core group of performers helped the festival survive its first winter and, she said, she thinks it will begin to grow more quickly now.

"I think it's going to blossom once the construction is done," Nichols said. "We're certainly looking forward to bigger and better things when we get the park done."

An especially rainy summer and an exceptionally cold winter hurt the festival in its first year. And the bottom line _ the festival's cash flow _ stands to suffer in the coming months when food concession revenue disappears.

"I think our biggest hurdles are behind us," Pettinato said.

Pettinato said that as time goes by, more people will come to the festival, making it more popular and more lucrative. "Into our third year, we should be full-tilt," she said.

She characterizes the festival as a cross between Key West fun and Clearwater Beach family values.

"It's meant to be a family, clean, wholesome beach, so we gear our festival toward that marketplace," said Pettinato, who has lived in Clearwater for 17 years.

But family values and sunset watchers aren't all the festival needs.and Pettinato is keeping her fingers crossed.

"We're going to be made or broken on sponsorships," she said.