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Ribfest ending after 30 years in St. Petersburg

A patron holds a handful of ribs at the Northeast Exchange Club’s Ribfest in 2008. (Times files)
Published Mar. 22

Ribfest, the St. Petersburg barbecue and classic rock festival that for decades has been one of the largest annual musical events in Tampa Bay, is going pork belly-up.

After nearly 30 years and more than $4.5 million raised for local charities, organizers the Northeast Exchange Club of St. Petersburg blamed a combination of factors, including rising costs, diminished revenues and a city whose cultural identity has evolved so much that Ribfest had started to feel like a relic.

"The demographics of St. Petersburg have changed a tremendous amount, and so have the tastes of the crowds that come to Ribfest," said Chris Taylor, a past club president and member of Ribfest's executive committee. "The economics have gotten more and more difficult. You're just not raising enough money off of the event for the charities that we support."

So is this a case of millennials killing Ribfest?

Not entirely, Taylor said. But scanning the crowd in recent years, it was clear young people just weren't buying tickets like they used to.

"They have different tastes, and they have different wants of what they want an event to be," he said. "When Ribfest started, it was close to the only show in town, so you definitely had a captive audience. Today that's not the case. Ribfest is one of dozens of events in St. Petersburg nowadays."

Ribfest began in 1990 as an offshoot of St. Petersburg's annual Festival of States, with tickets selling for $3 per day or $6 for the weekend. It grew so popular that the Northeast Exchange Club quickly spun it off into its own event. In time, tens of thousands of fans would come out to Vinoy Park each year to sample award-winning barbecue from around the country while checking out classic rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Doobie Brothers and Heart; and rising country stars like Eric Church and Thomas Rhett.

The volunteer-run festival was the largest fundraiser for the Northeast Exchange Club, a civic organization that donated to organizations ranging from child abuse prevention centers to the Boy Scouts, often through small but meaningful donations in the hundreds of dollars. The Northeast Exchange Club paid for All Children's Hospital's first heart-lung machine and initiated the construction of Coffee Pot Park in the Old Northeast.

"We put up $100,000, the city put up $100,000, and Penny for Pinellas put up $100,000, but we initiated that," said Tom Whiteman, who has booked Ribfest's talent since the beginning. "That's $300,000 to a city park that may have still been Brazilian peppers and holly bushes."

But doling out that kind of money for charity had become a challenge with costs rising for talent, production and security. The latter had been a factor since 9/11, but especially following mass terrorist events at a concert hall in Paris, an Ariana Grande show in England and a country music festival in Las Vegas. Ribfest had to pay not only for more security measures like metal detection devices, but for an increased uniformed police presence mandated by the city. Gate tickets had increased from $10 in 2006 to a high of $35 in 2016.

"Our fixed costs continued to go up and up and up every year," Whiteman said. "I would say we have a million dollars in fixed costs before we even open the gates. Ribfest was the equivalent of a multi-million-dollar charity in three days. We're a civic club, all volunteers, and we risk a lot of money."

The last couple of years have been particularly rough, in part due to bad luck. In 2017, two headliners, ZZ Top and Trace Adkins, dropped off the bill, sending organizers scrambling for replacements. In 2018, the festival experimented with a $5 ticket night and younger-skewing Sunday headliner in the Barenaked Ladies. In both years, attendance was well below the 30,000 who came out for Zac Brown Band in 2009.

Long gone are the days when Ribfest was an anomaly along the downtown waterfront, before restaurant after restaurant popped up on Beach Drive and music festivals in Vinoy Park grew more common. But Taylor said there are no sour grapes about how the city has seemingly evolved beyond ribs and classic rock.

"It's gotten a lot younger, it's gotten a lot hipper downtown, it's a wonderful place to live," he said. "We're looking at several different events that are successful elsewhere in the country, and see how we can 'St. Petersburg' them for our events."

While 2019 will be a dark year, Taylor said, the Northeast Exchange Club's next chapter could begin as early as 2020.

"That's the hope," he said. "The question is, where can we fit?"

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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