Strawberry Festival to upgrade main concert venue

For years, crowds have gathered in the stands to watch concerts at the Florida Strawberry Festival’s Wish Farms Soundstage, a venue once used for football games and rodeos.
For years, crowds have gathered in the stands to watch concerts at the Florida Strawberry Festival’s Wish Farms Soundstage, a venue once used for football games and rodeos.
Published March 22, 2017

PLANT CITY — They gathered one last time to bid adieu to the bleachers that surround the Wish Farms Soundstage at the Florida Strawberry Festival.

Those who catch headline performances at the festival see them as mere seating for the concerts. But the former cheerleaders, coaches, players, supporters and fans of the Plant City High School Raiders, Tomlin Middle Tigers and Dolphins and Colts youth programs who gathered Monday on the grounds held a decided different view of the concrete and steel bleachers.

To them, the Strawberry Festival's biggest venue is William Schneider Memorial Stadium, the place where football teams battled and players practiced from the 1960s to the 1980s. Throughout the years, multiple events were held on the grounds — from the Florida Strawberry Festival's Queen Scholarship pageant to revivals to sunrise Easter services.

But the iconic bleachers will soon be replaced with upgraded aluminum seating.

"We're adding an extra 2,000 sellable seats," Paul Davis said. "We've been discussing this for about eight years.

"We've been playing a music venue in a football stadium," Davis added. "The bleachers are sideways. After watching a concert for an hour and a half, your neck hurts. We're going to give people a better line of sight."

The new seats will additionally be brought closer to the stage, ending where the existing bleachers begin. The new seats will have backs to them and will form a semi-circle around the stage, creating more room and, as Davis said, enhancing the experience for both concert guests and performers.

"We're also going to be adding bigger screens," Davis said. "We're trying to enhance the experience substantially."

Vendors also will see changes. By the 2018 festival, the vendors who worked outdoors below the existing bleachers for years will have an 18,000-square-foot building to call home.

"We haven't named the building yet," Davis said. "But the new building will be air-conditioned and will have climate control. Down the road, we'll see how it affects traffic flow and go from there. We're considering adding more bathrooms in the future."

The stadium project, which is being completed by GT Grandstands on Sydney Road, is expected to be completed by October 2017.

"We really strive to make people feel welcome," Davis said. "We want to make the experience pleasant all the way through. I want people to come back. If you can do that, you have a success."

While Davis and the rest of the festival staff look to the future, they paid tribute to the past on Monday.

Florida Strawberry Festival vice president Sandee Sytsma and her husband, Hank, remember using the stadium before it belonged to the festival.

For Hank Sytsma, those memories are centered around football. He served as the coach of the Plant City High School football team from 1966 through 1981. Before becoming a coach, he played for the Florida State University freshmen football team and faced off against the University of Miami in that same arena.

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"That was our football stadium," Hank Sytsma said. "That was one of the best spectator stadiums.

"Men that are now in their 60s still remember running the stadium. There were walls under the stadium where the vendors are now, and we used that as a weight room."

The stadium was used for other events as well, including a rodeo that used to stop in town. After the show, the Sytsmas would stop to fill the holes in the ground, repairing the land for the next practice or game.

Once the high school got its own stadium, the festival eventually purchased the William Schneider Memorial Stadium and turned it into the existing concert venue.

"We're always looking for ways to improve our festival," Sandee Sytsma said. "But we don't want to lose who we are. We tried to donate the bleachers, but city organizations didn't need them."

Still, they wanted history to be remembered. So those who played on the fields long before Rascal Flatts and Patti LaBelle played the festival gathered for one final photo in the bleachers, like high school students posing for the yearbook.

And then the deconstruction began, a crane pulling apart the bleachers.

Contact Emily Topper at