BROOKSVILLE — Florida Blueberry Festival officials stunned local residents and business owners in June when they announced they would not sign a long-term lease with the city, were canceling the 2018 event and were leaving Brooksville entirely.
Since 2011, the festival brought tens of thousands of visitors to downtown Brooksville each spring, lured by extensive marketing efforts featuring blueberry-shaped characters wearing sunglasses.
State festival organizers said the venue was too small.
Almost immediately, local leaders began talking about how to fill the void.
An offer by John Lee, the owner of Coney Island Drive Inn, recently has taken hold. He set April 28 and 29 as dates for the event and will use his property and the property of neighboring businesses for the entertainment, vendors and parking.
Lee appeared before the Hernando County Commission and the Brooksville City Council months ago to pitch his idea. He trademarked the name Brooksville Blueberry Festival and began planning an event under new leadership in downtown Brooksville.
The Brooksville Vision Foundation tried to secure a state tourism grant to market the new event, and the Main Street Program discussed staging the new festival downtown where the previous events were held. But interest from those two organizations fizzled, so Lee decided to organize and run the event himself this year.
He said he has made good progress with help from fellow business owners, vendors already expressing plans to come and charitable organizations working with him to run activities.
That is good news to Brooksville Mayor Betty Erhard.
"I'm a true believer in festivals," she said. "Anything that is going to enhance Brooksville is a good thing for our community, and we should do more of it.''
Erhard was critical of the operation of the previous festival, saying the city didn't get enough back for its efforts. She is grateful for Lee.
"I'm glad he grabbed a hold of it and decided to take it on,'' she said.
Lee said he couldn't let the extensive festival marketing done in the past fall by the wayside.
"The most important part of this is that the Florida Blueberry Festival spent over a half a million dollars ... marketing Brooksville as the home of the Blueberry Festival,'' Lee said. "It just made sense to me that someone in Brooksville would want to continue that.''
He ultimately wants to give the trademark and festival over to a non-profit entity to keep it running.
In the meantime, Lee is trying to make the 2018 event as successful as he can. He has scheduled an evening concert with a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band for Saturday night and with a Blues Brothers tribute band for Sunday afternoon. He also is working with others to attract local bands to keep the music going throughout the weekend.
"I'm going to do my best with my own resources to market and promote a small festival in Brooksville centered around the blueberry theme,'' he said. He is discussing activities ranging from a petting zoo and dunk tank to a contest for the best blueberry recipe and a blueberry-pie eating contest.
Lee also is exploring providing a place for an electronic gaming competition.
"I'm committed to the Blueberry Festival so local charities can make a little money, and we can have fun,'' he said.
Contact Barbara Behrendt at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.