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Harvest of Art festival uprooted

The event now will be at the Sand Hill Boy Scout Reservation. Event officials say a parking fee at Weeki Wachee Spring drove them away.

After two years at Weeki Wachee Park, demands by the attraction and city government are driving the Spring Hill Art League to move Annual Fall Harvest of Art to the Sand Hill Boy Scout Reservation.

With two months left before the event, the last-minute move is a must, art league president Anne Preston said. The art league will pay a $500 fee to stage the festival at the reservation.

"I would much rather pay the Boy Scouts than Weeki Wachee at this point," said Preston, who based plans for this year's festival on a 1998 letter of agreement from then-Weeki Wachee Spring general manager Kim Burich promising use of the park through 2003 for the annual event.

But at an Aug. 30 meeting with current Weeki Wachee Spring general manager Mike Jacobs, Preston learned there would be changes in the terms of the agreement.

In the past, the park had provided a trash bin for the event. No longer.

The park had provided coffee and doughnuts for exhibitors. Not this time.

But the most startling change, Preston said, was a $5 parking fee.

"That would kill attendance at this event," Preston said. "People just won't pay it."

On Tuesday, Jacobs, who also serves as one of three city commissioners for the city of Weeki Wachee, said the idea for the parking charge came because the park is having hard times. He also said the decision to charge for parking is not final.

Art league vice president Joe Hooper came away from the meeting with Jacobs with a different understanding.

"That (parking charge) was put to us as an absolute," Hooper said. "That $5 charge was the deal breaker."

Preston said that with lost attendance because of the parking fee and the $10 fee for each vendor factored in, it would not be reasonable for the festival to be held at the park.

"By the time we sat down and figured it all out, we would have been losing money so they (Weeki Wachee Spring) could make money," Preston said.

In addition to the parking fee, Preston said the city of Weeki Wachee planned to charge a $10 fee for each of this year's 120 vendors. In the past two years, she said, there has never been such a fee.

If city officials had these changes in mind, Preston said, they should have informed the art league before applications were sent to artists in May.

"They could have told us much sooner," said Preston, who has had several meetings with officials at Weeki Wachee Spring since April. "They should have been right up front from the beginning instead of waiting to lower the boom."

But Weeki Wachee Mayor Robyn Weiss, who also works as operations manager for Weeki Wachee Spring, said the fee is in accordance with a Weeki Wachee ordinance requiring vendors to purchase an occupational license for the two-day festival.

"Only non-profit groups can use that park without a charge," said Weiss, who took office five months ago. "I really feel I have to do things by the book."

Past mayors have been remiss by not charging fees to the art league, Weiss said, but she takes great pains to keep her jobs at the city government and the theme park separate.

As for the late notice to the art league and the charge for use of city trash bins, Weiss said she did everything she could once she realized things had not been handled by the book in the past.

"We tried to work everything out with them," she said. "But legally, this is what we have to do."

Preston said the group will have to find alternate food vendors for the event.

Hooper said he always is apprehensive when a large event has to change locations. In its 26-year history, the festival has been held at a grocery store parking lot, a retirement community and behind the Spring Hill waterfall on Spring Hill Drive.

"We really thought we were settled," Hooper said. "We wanted some continuity for our patrons and hopefully, the crowds will find us all right."

Despite her disappointment, Preston said the art league does not intend to litigate over the failed agreement.

"If they don't want us there, they can make things miserable for us," she said. "I don't want to be involved with people like that."

The Fall Harvest of Art will be held Oct. 21-22 at the Sand Hill Boy Scout Reservation on State Road 50 east of Weeki Wachee.