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DeWitt: Don't give away Brooksville park without more information

Octavio Jones  |  Times Under a plan being discussed with the Brooksville City Council, the Florida Blueberry Festival could be moving to the site of the former Quarry Golf Course in Brooksville.
Octavio Jones | Times Under a plan being discussed with the Brooksville City Council, the Florida Blueberry Festival could be moving to the site of the former Quarry Golf Course in Brooksville.
Published Dec. 7, 2016

All the unanswered questions about the Florida Blueberry Festival and its proposed lease of the former site of the Quarry Golf Course lead inevitably to this one question:

Why not first try the festival at this new location before committing to such a massive public giveaway?

Because, no way around it, a giveaway is exactly what this is.

The proposed lease would grant Florida Blueberry Festival Inc. use of the former Quarry driving range, about half of the old golf course and the adjacent Bud McKethan Park on U.S. 41, just south of downtown Brooksville.

It would cost the festival $1 per year to control this land for 60 years — 40 years initially with an option for an additional 20 years that "cannot be unreasonably withheld" by the city of Brooksville.

A slim majority of the City Council approves of this deal at least in concept, even though — as members Betty Erhard and Joe Bernardini have pointed out — festival organizers have provided a notable lack of information.

How does the council know if the festival will be able to carry out its vision for this property, building an amphitheater and auditorium, and running permanent utility lines for vendors?

It doesn't.

Michael Heard, president of the festival organization, will have to write a detailed business plan to get the loan she needs for these improvements. She should be able to get such a plan to the city before it approves the lease — a plan with at least enough detail to allow the city to compare the benefits against other possible uses.

Which leads to a related question: What will the city receive in return for its generous gift?

There have been anecdotes about downtown restaurants enjoying bumper days during the festival, but no financial impact study. Because of Heard's refusal to issue admission tickets, the city doesn't know for sure how many people attend.

Speaking of Heard, who is 63 years old and a resident of Fort Myers: How long will she remain involved, and will the organization maintain the same vitality and commitment to the city when — as will certainly happen long before the end of the lease — she bows out?

And, finally, since one of the primary ideas of the festival was to promote downtown Brooksville, will it continue to carry out that function in a remote location?

I should point out that the latest lease is better than earlier versions. There are specific protections for the tennis courts at McKethan Park, for example, and no commitment from the city to maintain the property. The deal can also be voided if the festival fails to start work on its promised improvements according to a set timeline.

One other thing. Don't confuse a request for more information with opposition to the festival — or to moving it.

The event has been good for the city, showing it off to outsiders and raising its regional profile. Moving, Heard said, would allow her to stage several events each year, providing regular boosts to the economy. And she could add more attractions and more days to the festival without the obstacles presented by downtown Brooksville, including pedestrian-unfriendly hills and state highways that need to be barricaded for the event.

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Her plan is worth a try.

Without more answers to Erhard and Bernardini's questions, though, it's not worth the 60-year gift of a city park.

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com. Follow @ddewitttimes.

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