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Debating a festival's fate

Largo finds itself in the middle of a debate that could help define the city's personality and priorities.

When Largo's contract with the Bay Area Renaissance Festival ends next year, the city's 20-year partnership with the event could be at an end.

The festival wants to stay in Largo, where this year it drew nearly 90,000 people over six weekends of operation. But at least one city commissioner, Pat Burke, would like to see it leave town. Residents of the Park Place neighborhood echo Burke's sentiments because busy festival weekends cause traffic jams on their streets.

The biggest threat to the festival's future in Largo, however, is a financial one. If it stays, the festival would move to a new site near Largo Central Park where it would need a large parking lot. The 30 acres being considered for parking were once a landfill.

The city is conducting a $25,000 engineering study to determine if the land is stable enough for that use. If it is, the city figures it would have to spend $250,000 or more to build the parking lot. Even some festival fans say that is too much money.

Before Largo residents and commissioners make this very important decision for their city, they should consider a few key points:

Does the city get any benefits from hosting the Renaissance Festival? The answer would have to be yes. It brings thousand of visitors to the city, provides temporary part-time employment and returns about $80,000 to the city and non-profit groups.

Would $250,000 for a parking lot be a good investment for the city? The answer would have to be no. That much money could be better used for improvements to the new section of Central Park than for a part-time parking lot. Festival officials say they could build an unpaved parking lot for a lot less, however.

Does the Renaissance Festival match the image that Largo is trying to create for itself? The answer to this question can only come from a spirited debate in the community. If the goal is to change their image _ Commissioner Burke prefers events that stress education and the environment _ Largo officials will have to come up with other ways to draw visitors downtown.

The Renaissance Festival deserves a full hearing before the Largo City Commission. It would be a shame for the city to discontinue its relationship with the festival without giving operators a chance to make their best argument or before having replacement events in mind. Downtown redevelopment will succeed only if people have a reason to visit.

But maybe Largo has outgrown the festival. Certainly, the city could find a better use in Central Park for $250,000. Even if the festival stays, a more affordable parking plan is needed.

This is a good time for Largo residents to become involved in a community discussion about what their city is and what it hopes to become.

If that occurs, then Largo has lost nothing and maybe it will gain a more promising plan for the future.