Brooksville Blueberry Festival's leader doesn't need to fight questions

Michael Heard has threatened to sue a council member.
Michael Heard has threatened to sue a council member.
Published March 5, 2015

Michael Heard doesn't understand.

She created a fun event, the Florida Blueberry Festival. She has raised a lot of money to get the word out about her big annual party and about Brooksville.

She has organized and schmoozed; she's navigated bureaucracies and fended off doubters.

Still, they doubt. Or at least question.

And this makes her feel "persecuted" and "picked on," she said after recently threatening to sue City Council member Betty Erhard for what Heard called "defamatory" statements.

So, as a resident who has harbored some of these doubts, I figured I could explain why the questions continue.

Heard's festival costs a lot for a small-town event. The total expenses last year for the two-day festival were $400,000 compared to about $50,000 for Dade City's one-day Kumquat Festival.

Local governments pick up the costs related to closing streets for the Kumquat Festival, items that go into Heard's budget and make the comparison somewhat more dramatic than it actually is.

But Heard also gets help from the county and the city — a total of $32,500 in cash grants for the festival this year, and $56,000 worth of assistance, including the permitting help to close state-maintained highways. Any organization that gets that much public money — even if it's a private nonprofit, as the festival is — gets questions.

Also consider that Heard asks for a lot in other ways, demanding exclusive use of the town for an entire weekend, fencing it off and charging $8 — $5 last year — to set foot on our own city streets. Of course we're going to ask where that money goes.

Then, when she does give answers, they tend to scream out for clarification.

Before last year's festival, she told a Times reporter she expected a crowd of 33,000. Immediately afterward, she reported to another paper that attendance was 60,000. In her application for a grant from the county's Tourist Development Council, she wrote that the event's goal is to "maintain current attendance of 48,000." A few lines later, in the same document, she wrote that the number of in- and out-of-county visitors would add up to 49,650.

So what was the actual number?

Heard couldn't say. But fortunately, as part of an application for a county grant, she was required to file a profit-loss statement for last year.

The statement shows a total gate of $112,000, which indicates that even her original attendance estimate might have been optimistic. If we generously assume that half of the paying customers were charged the children's rate of $3, the average ticket would be $4, putting the attendance at 28,000.

Heard didn't explain this, but another fortunate thing happened. Two of the festival's board members, Rhonda Hancock and Cliff Manuel, did agree to take questions. The estimate in the grant application was the total number of people who might stay in town long enough to boost the local economy, they said. It included vendors, volunteers and children 5 and younger, all of whom get in free.

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It's not a completely satisfying explanation, but at least it's an explanation. Manuel also helped straighten out the confusion about Heard's salary, which she told the City Council last month was "nominal."

Most sources put this salary at $28,000, which not everybody would call nominal. The county application stated she was paid $4,000 per month, which fits hardly anyone's definition of that term. Actually, Manual said, she gets $33,000 as well as, according to the application, $3,600 to pay for driving back and forth from her home in Fort Myers.

So, she isn't getting rich running the festival — not from her salary, not from skimming off funds. And to answer the question she always asks me — no, I have no evidence that is happening, and I don't think anyone else does, either.

Which makes Heard's fight-or-flight response to reasonable inquiries all the more wrongheaded. If nothing bad is happening, don't act as though it is.

Give people the information they seek, and give it to them straight.

The best way to avoid new questions is to calmly and honestly answer all of the old ones.

Contact Dan DeWitt at; follow @ddewitttimes.