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It doesn't feel like Christmas, but the holiday spirit will be in full swing Friday as the ninth annual Flamingo Fling gets under way at the University of South Florida's Embassy Suites Hotel.

Founded almost a decade ago by a local club with interests in tree ornaments, the two day exhibition brings together manufacturers of the knickknacks with individuals from all over the country who collect them.

"This is the show for people who want to see the newest ornaments coming out this year," said Clara Scroggins of Tampa Palms, founder of the Fling and corporate liaison for the event.

By displaying the ornaments planned for this coming season, manufacturers are able to get a heads-up as to which items will be more popular, therefore which to ship more of to retailers.

The event also includes a secondary market show, where collectors can purchase ornaments from previous years that are no longer available through retailers.

"Oftentimes these items may come out in a series, one each year," said Scroggins. "A serious collector wants to have one from each of those years, and will go anywhere on earth to get a rare piece."

Leading vendors will be on hand, including Hallmark Cards, Waterford, Carlton Cards, and Lenox. Proceeds go to Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto. Last year's event raised more than $65,000 for the organization, which trains canines for the blind.

Perhaps the most anticipated part of the event comes Friday night at the banquet, where one-of-a-kind ornaments will be auctioned off.

"Some are items that the manufacturers make just for us, just for this auction," Scroggins said. "Others are items that a company makes and then decides no, we don't want to put this out on the line . . . all one of a kind items. Any collector would cherish them because they aren't made available anywhere but here."

And the ornaments are not just of the bric-a-brac variety.

"Some of these are really pieces of art _ fine porcelain, fine crystal, fine china," said Scroggins. "They're not just pretty little decorative things. They give you your family history."

Items purchased years ago have enormously escalated in price.

"Fifteen to 20 years ago an ornament may have cost $7.50, but today it's $800," she said. "Once they are retired, depending on popularity, they go way sky high in value."

If it seems Scroggins knows a bit about ornaments, she does. Over the years she has amassed one of the largest collections on earth, totaling more than 1-million pieces.

She is hard pressed to pick favorites.

"Collectors don't think in terms of one item, one favorite," she said. "They think in terms of their whole collection and adding new pieces."

_ Reporter Sheryl Kay can be reached at skreporterhotmail.com.

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