A year ago, tens of thousands of people packed into downtown St. Petersburg to attend Localtopia, the massive “community celebration of all things local.” That’s sort of surreal in that the nation started to close down weeks later.
Keep St. Petersburg Local has been producing the event since 2014. Localtopia 2020 was the pinnacle of the festival’s success, with more than 300 vendors and an estimated 30,000 people in attendance.
And then the pandemic came, hitting local businesses especially hard.
But Olga Bof, founder of Keep St. Pete Local, has found a way to hold the festival again this year, with reduced attendance capacity, 160 vendors and strict guidelines that adhere to CDC, county and city requirements.
The festival’s footprint will be enclosed with marked entrances and exits, featuring temperature checks at each. Staff will monitor the crowd and people will be asked to wait if the festival has reached capacity. Streets surrounding the park will be closed to traffic, allowing extra room for attendees.
“Even though its not the biggest year, it will be the most important year,” Bof said. “It kind of reminds me of the first year. That year we helped (the vendors) grow their businesses, this year we’re helping them stay in business.”
Localtopia is the culmination of Bof’s decade-long effort to promote St. Petersburg small businesses, artists and community organizations.
The path for founding Keep St. Petersburg Local began around 2009, when Bof was looking into opening a children’s book and toy store but quickly found that she wouldn’t be able to compete with Amazon and other large booksellers without a support network.
Her research led her to discover the American Independent Business Alliance. A seed was planted to start a similar local coalition.
“There was nothing unifying local businesses in St. Pete,” she said.
Meanwhile, as more and more small businesses began to pop up in St. Petersburg and the 600 block of Central Ave. filled with artists and indie boutiques, Bof began writing a weekly column profiling them for I Love the Burg. She wrote as “The Localista” to promote buying local and collaborated with photographer Sheri Kendrick on the columns.
After a year, momentum and community support grew.
On Nov. 19, 2011, the Independent Business Alliance, Keep St. Petersburg Local was launched in affiliation with the American Independent Business Alliance. The mission is to “build a thriving local economy and a unique community” by “nurturing connections for and acting as the voice of locally-owned, independent businesses and by raising awareness of the importance of buying local.”
Local tattoo artist Michael Keller had designed the Keep St. Pete Local logo for stickers, but gave it to the nonprofit organization.
At their launch party at NOVA 535 on Jan. 31, 2012, Keep St. Petersburg Local already had 50 members, whom they attracted by building a buzz on social media.
More than 300 people attended the party.
“It was a communal moment and feast and everybody was so buzzed, it was palpable,” Bof said.
When the party was over, Keep St. Pete Local had 50 more members.
Fast forward a year, during which the group had a Free Hug Fest at the Saturday Morning Market to promote local love.
After their one year celebration bash at NOVA featuring local businesses and artists, Bof said they were thinking up ideas of how to replicate the hugging event on a larger scale.
“The idea for Localtopia was born,” Bof said.
Bof set her sights on Williams Park and got the City of St. Petersburg to co-sponsor the event. In 2014, there were 100-125 vendors and an estimated 5,000-8,000 people attended.
Bof said the event helped Keep St. Pete Local grow as an organization while helping local businesses grow.
Mother Kombucha is one business that grew like gangbusters after giving out samples of their homebrewed fermented tea at the first Localtopia.
“We had just concepted our brand and thought this would be a perfect place to get in front of people and get feedback, see which flavors would hit,” said Tonya Donati, co-founder of Mother Kombucha. “It was so overwhelmingly positive it reinforced what we were doing, that we were on the right track.”
They started vending at the Saturday Morning Market, then wholesaling to local business, many of which were also Localtopia vendors. Eventually the brand moved into Rolling Oats and Earth Origins. By the end of 2019, the brand was sold in about 900 Publix locations throughout the state.
The festival grew larger over the years, as did St. Petersburg. It always happens at Williams Park.
Julie Dye, owner of jewelry line Blossom and Shine, has been selling at Localtopia for the past few years. She has a weekly presence at the Saturday Morning Market and a studio at ArtLofts.
“It’s my best event of the year,” she said. “It’s even better than holiday sales. I get new customers and make more money than the year before every time.”
With those successes in mind, and with the knowledge that the pandemic has robbed many vendors the opportunity to sell their work, Bof felt the responsibility to go ahead with this year’s festival.
This year’s event features four retail and arts villages, a food truck alley and separate food and drink section. Artist Jujmo will live paint a car for Carmada and the Nomad Art Bus will have socially distanced activities. Live music by local bands will happen all day in the bandshell.
“We realize how important the event is not only for financial health, but also mental health,” Bof said. “I want to provide the community with a joy-filled day.”
If you go
Localtopia runs 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday. Rain date is Feb. 27. Free. Safety measures include temperature checks, mask requirements, encouraged social distancing and separate eating and drinking. Pets are not allowed because they complicate social distancing. 350 Second Ave. N. For information on parking, a map, the lineup and safety guidelines, visit localtopia.keepsaintpetersburglocal.org.