1. News

Party's over for DJs who entertained at Sunshine Skyway rest stops

The scene at a typical Skyway party that was hosted by Tom Evans, aka “DJ Swampy,” in July 2018 at a rest stop off the Sunshine Skyway bridge. The Florida Highway Patrol is bringing the decades-long tradition to an end. [Courtesy of Tom Evans]
The scene at a typical Skyway party that was hosted by Tom Evans, aka “DJ Swampy,” in July 2018 at a rest stop off the Sunshine Skyway bridge. The Florida Highway Patrol is bringing the decades-long tradition to an end. [Courtesy of Tom Evans]
Published Nov. 29, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — When the leaders of The House Movement planned their "Skyway Party 2.0" for Aug. 4, they were continuing a decades-long tradition.

Since at least the 1980s, up-and-coming DJs have brought their equipment to the rest stops on the Pinellas County side of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge for overnight performances. Local DJs saw it as a rite of passage in the Tampa Bay electronic music scene: they'd perform for hours, often free of charge, honing their sets. A typical show would attract a few hundred diehards.

Skyway 2.0 did not bill itself as a typical show. What was advertised as "The House Movement Massive Skyway Party 2.0" promised five stages and dozens of acts.

Parties don't often live up to the hype. This one did, and then some.

Not even organizers could have predicted that over 3,000 people would flock to the Skyway that night, causing a chaotic scene that quickly drew the attention of law enforcement.

"This was our worst fear, that something like this would happen," said Dana Sauret, the CEO of The House Movement, noting that the word "Massive" in the party's title referred to the artists under his group's umbrella, not the expected size of the crowd.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers threatened to tow the dozens of cars parked illegally near the Interstate 275 off-ramp unless everybody cleared out. It was a noncontroversial decision even among the party's organizers; Skyway 2.0 had gotten out of hand.

But on Nov. 20, the state law enforcement agency struck a much bigger blow to the Skyway music scene when it announced that it would close the bridge's rest stops to all overnight visitors. One 50-word press release effectively drew the curtain on decades of musical tradition.

Tom Evans, a Lakeland musician and producer who performs under the moniker "DJ Swampy," said the decision to close the Skyway would be felt all around Florida.

"It's culture. It's the whole culture of it," Evans said. "For you to be a DJ in the Tampa or St. Pete area or even Orlando, you had to have played the Skyway bridge."

The DJ said he blames Skyway 2.0's organizers for taking advantage of a unique tradition to recklessly throw such a huge party.

Sauret contended that his company was merely trying to do what it has done since 1995: provide a platform for local musicians. The group regularly hosts parties at various venues across Tampa Bay, Sauret said. The crowd simply got too large for the Skyway to accommodate.

Sauret noted — and Highway Patrol records confirmed — that troopers made no arrests when they broke up Skyway 2.0. Still, Sgt. Steve Gaskins said in the Nov. 20 release that state law enforcement was closing of the rest stops to "deter illegal activity."

"People are going down there and they're doing a lot of things that probably aren't on the up-and-up," Gaskins told the Tampa Bay Times. "The primary reason is the safety aspect of it. You can't have those kind of engagements with the volume of people that they were having. The area can't sustain that."

In the time between Skyway 2.0 and the Highway Patrol's November announcement, the law enforcement agency shut down at least one other planned Skyway party, Gaskins said. That event was set to be called "#FloridaRaveFam Beachella 2 Skyway Edition."

But Evans said although DJs were never technically permitted to play the Skyway, parties like the ones shut down by law enforcement were exceptions to the Skyway music scene, not the rule. The typical Skyway show, Evans said, was home to no more shenanigans than the average beach cookout. Music lovers would hang around until sunrise, and before everyone left, organizers armed with trash bags would clean up the area.

"Everyone thinks it's still 90s raves, and it's not," Evans said. "Everyone thinks it's just a drug scene, but it's not."

The Highway Patrol gave Skyway visitors two weeks of notice before officially shutting down the rest stops at night. The new changes won't take effect until Dec. 3.

Don't expect any final Skyway sendoff, Sauret said.

"We've been very vocal on the internet about other people not doing things like (Skyway 2.0)," Sauret said. "If I could go back and not do, it I would make the decision to not do it."

Contact Kirby Wilson at Follow @kirbywtweets.