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Ringling Bros. circus shifts winter home from Tampa fairgrounds to Ellenton

A performer rehearses with camels in Ellenton on Dec. 10. The circus performs Thursday through Sunday at Amalie Arena.
A performer rehearses with camels in Ellenton on Dec. 10. The circus performs Thursday through Sunday at Amalie Arena.
Published Dec. 29, 2014

ELLENTON

The call came over the loudspeaker and echoed through the cavernous building that easily spans three football fields:

"Can I have all the camel riders over here, please?"

Moments later, a 25-year-old woman was catapulting through the air after being shot out of a cannon, while skilled acrobats were bouncing off trampolines and BMX experts were flipping their bikes in the air. Outside, Assan, an 11,000-pound Asian elephant, was devouring loaves of bread for lunch.

Yes, the circus has come to this town more known for its outlet mall, and the community may never be the same.

Feld Entertainment, the producers of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, have completed their move from Vienna, Va., to the new headquarters.

"The elephants now are at the office," said Nicole Feld, executive vice president.

So too are another 80 animals, 100 performers representing 13 countries and more than 400 employees who are working to present the circus' latest production Thursday through Sunday at Amalie Arena in Tampa. It's the culmination of a multimillion-dollar investment that saw Feld purchase the former General Electric property on U.S. 301 in 2012 for $8.35 million and invest even more in renovations.

"We are so thrilled," said Alana Feld, also executive vice president. "This has been such an incredible year here for our company."

The move means greater potential for innovation and attention to detail for the circus, but it also means the end of a relationship with the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa that dates to 1990.

In previous years, the circus would spend six to seven weeks at the fairgrounds, from mid November through the end of December. It represented the authority's third-largest customer, annually bringing in more than $325,000.

"We were sad to see Feld leave but completely understand consolidating their various brands under one roof," said Terri Parnell-Longphee, the Fair Authority's director of sales and marketing.

"Since they have been here for so many years, many prospective event organizers would not think of availability at the Florida State Fairgrounds during this time of year,'' she said. "It will take us some time to bring in new business to replace their winter training, but we feel confident that we will be able to replace the revenue."

Meanwhile, Feld continues to reap benefits from its new home. It can welcome guests in a well-decorated foyer instead of outside a livestock shelter. Touring animals literally walk right off the train and in the back door, so there's no more parading through streets.

About a third of the Feld Entertainment animals travel with one of three simultaneous circuses they produce, while the rest head to the Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City to socialize and reproduce.

The circus' presence in the area dates back nearly 90 years. Ringling moved to Sarasota in 1927, expanded to Venice in 1959 and had a presence in Palmetto since the early 1990s.

In addition to housing animals, the new facility also allows for two circuses to rehearse side by side: the gold show for smaller venues and the red show that debuts a new performance in Tampa.

Business, production and operations are now under one 580,000-square-foot roof. Whenever there's a need for electrical work, scenery or one of 12,000 costumes the circus has retained over decades, Feld associates are only a few steps away.

"It's like the best shopping experience of your life," Nicole Feld said.

The company was given almost $4 million in state and local incentives and grants in 2012 to preserve 148 jobs in Manatee County. The current staff includes a high number of locals hired since the relocation. The company estimates it will spend $3 billion in Manatee County in the next 20 years in the form of wages, locally bought goods, taxes and other expenses.

Contact Eric Vician at hillsnews@tampabay.com.