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  1. St. Petersburg

John's Pass Seafood Festival faces questions over its future

MADEIRA BEACH — Over the past week it became clear the future of the award-winning John's Pass Seafood Festival is in doubt.

Upset residents and business owners alike flooded City Hall with phone calls and emails asking why the award-winning annual event might end after a 37-year run.

"We got a ton of calls," said City Manager Jonathan Evans. "People were very upset."

After nearly a week of growing controversy it seems the festival may have a future, but only if the city and the community "steps up" to support the biggest tourism draw in the entire county, according to officials of the current host, the John's Pass Village Association.

The tiff between the city and the association started Oct. 4 when the association sent out a news release announcing that this year's festival, to be held Oct. 25-28, would be the last.

"The overall cost of hosting the event has multiplied over five times the cost from just five years ago," said Sonny Flynn, the association's president and festival chair.

The festival "cannot continue without the support of the city" she said, adding that for the first time, the City Commission wanted the association to pay an estimated $42,000 in fees in order to get a permit for the event.

The formal announcement that the festival would be ending followed an association meeting in August when the group decided that this would be the last year it sponsored the event. The group never told the city.

"I didn't want to get into a fight with the city," Flynn said this week, "but it seems like they don't care, they don't want tourism."

Last year, the Seafood Festival attracted 256,000 people, and generates more then $2 million in hotel revenue along, according to organizers.

Visit Florida has awarded the festival its prestigious Flagler Award for its outstanding marketing for Florida tourism.

Attendance at the event is free to the public who enjoy sampling locally caught seafood, as well as craft booths and shopping in John's Pass Village.

The association says it donates much of its revenue to local charities — an amount that totaled $34,000 last.

The current City Commission is on record for wanting to recoup "hard costs" incurred by the city for all special events at city facilities.

"The current administration and commission delayed approval of the event to the point of this year nearly not occurring. We can't risk that loss in the future," Flynn said.

The next day, the city sent out its own news release assuring the community it is committed to supporting the festival.

Then, Monday, Evans rushed out yet another release, posting it on the city's website and emailing to many in the community.

That one announced the city wanted "corrective action" and an apology from the association for failing to include the city as a "headline sponsor" on some of the festival's marketing materials.

Flynn explained that some of the marketing materials, including a video, had to be prepared long before the city finally signed a contract with the association on Sept. 6.

After meeting with city staff Tuesday, Flynn said the city appeared to be more willing to support the event, but refused to issue any apology.

"We did nothing wrong,'' she said. "It takes months to plan an event like this. The city will be listed as our main sponsor in future materials."

During the meeting she and Matt Powers, the association's vice president, repeated that their organization does not intend to run the festival again unless the city becomes a full-fledged partner.

Evans stressed late Tuesday that the city does support the festival and plans to ask the City Commission at a regular meeting Monday to pass a resolution to that effect.

"We need to make sure the Seafood Festival continues in perpetuity," Evans said.

After this year's Seafood Festival is over, Evans said he plans to convene an after-action meeting to review the "good, bad and indifferent" about this year's event.

He then wants to organize a series of meetings involving the commission, participating businesses, and attendees to create a road map for ensuring the festival continues "well into the future".

Evans said he has "learned a lot of lessons" from the past week and past months of negotiations, "but after all the hoopla, we reaffirm the city's commitment to keeping the Seafood Festival".