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  1. St. Petersburg

The legacy of the Suncoasters, longtime promoters of springtime in St. Petersburg, lives on

Sears, Roebuck and Co. was among the sponsors of floats in the Festival of States parade. [Suncoasters/Festival of States]
Published Apr. 5

ST. PETERSBURG — The Suncoasters, the civic group that for decades brought the city one of its most treasured rites of spring, is gone, but its legacy lives on.

This fall, the popular Awesome Original Second Time Arounders Marching Band, formed to perform in the 1982 Festival of States Parade — the signature Suncoasters' event — is heading to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. For the second time.

And though the Suncoasters officially disbanded last year, the group's contribution to the All County Music Fest and the Scholastic Arts competition in Pinellas County schools continues through several members who formed a nonprofit to help sponsor the programs.

Most people, though, associate the Suncoasters, resplendent in their yellow jackets or yellow polo shirts, with the Festival of States. The springtime extravaganza once was spread over two to three weeks, including day and nighttime parades, high school bands from around the nation, and the selection of a Mr. or Ms. Sun and the naming of a Sungoddess and Junior Sungoddess.

Beth Houghton, CEO of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, was one of the first women to join the group of influential business leaders and professionals in the 1980s.

"I was working a very full-time job and had two small children at home," recalled Houghton, who was CFO and general counsel at All Children's Hospital at the time. Houghton later became president of the Suncoasters and was crowned Ms. Sun in recognition of her leadership in the community.

"My fondest memory of the Suncoasters was that when I came in, the economy was much more local than it is now," she said, mentioning that most business leaders were local.

"It was a different time and Suncoasters prided themselves in that everybody worked,'' she said. "So there was this sense that no job was too small. One of the first things I'm thinking of is I was in my jacket and heels at the Coliseum directing parking and traffic. But everybody did that, whatever needed to be done."

But change came. The parades, which became part of the Grand Prix kickoff, stopped for good in 2014.

The Festival of States parade had been around in some form since the 1890's. In the early days, former Suncoasters president Marcus Greene said, it was known as Washington's Birthday Parade. It evolved into the Festival of States around the time of the first World War, he said.

In 1917 Mayor Al Lang, Edwin Tomlinson, and a scout for the Philadelphia Phillies, who held their spring training in St. Petersburg at the time, decided that they wanted something to attract and keep people in St. Petersburg through spring.

"The city wanted them to stay a little longer," said Malcolm King, former executive director of the Festival of States. "Back then, we had state societies, people coming from the Northeast and Midwest. They asked each association to have a float with a queen."

Until the mid-1950's, the festival was run by a committee from the Chamber of Commerce. The city provided the funds.

But King said it was too much for a chamber committee to handle.

"Leading business people organized the Suncoasters to do just that," he said, adding that the group was established in the mid-1950's and held its first Festival of States parade in 1957.

King credited Herb Melleney, the event's first full-time executive director, with its development.

"He put an emphasis on bringing in out-of-state bands and they participated in the parade, as well as the AL Lang band competition."

And it was Melleney and his friend, Bill Findeison, former owner of Bringe Music Center, who came up with the idea of the popular adult marching band that would become known as the Second Time Arounders.

"He was an icon," Findeison said. "He was a creative genius."

The festival was at its peak in the mid-80's, King said.

"We started fading in the 2000s. In 2009, we stopped using the name Festival of States,'' he said. "Everything would be the Suncoasters."

"There was a time when it theoretically was bankrupt and everybody could have gone home and not paid the bills," Houghton said.

Instead, she said, the organization scaled back some of its events "and we paid back every penny of debt."

But the festival could not overcome the changes that were occurring. Out-of-state schools were cutting back on sending their bands to the festival, the city was giving less, membership was declining and a proliferation of other events drew people's interest.

For the former Suncoasters, fond memories remain.

Bob Lang, a former president, joined the group in 2008. "But I had participated with the Suncoasters since I was about 12," he said.

His late father, Joe Lang, was a Suncoaster.

"I would always accompany him when he was acting as a marshal for the parade or doing other things,'' Lang said. "It was just fun to be part of it."

"One of my best memories as a child is my dad would photograph the parade and that was a big deal and I still loved the parade as I got older," reminisced Phil Graham Jr., president of the Waterfront Parks Foundation, another Suncoasters president. "It was truly a family affair."

Bill Stover was a young sales manager at Merrill Lynch when he joined the organization in 1975.

''My father had been a Suncoaster back in the founding days. One of my clients was a founding member and they were looking for young leaders, so I felt honored to be asked to join," he said.

The group's work continues.

Greene, St. Petersburg market president of BB&T, who served as president three times, has joined with King and others to form a nonprofit — Pinellas Friends of Arts Education — to continue supporting the All County Music Fest and the Scholastic Arts competition.

"It's a legacy of the Suncoasters that we are still able to provide funding," Greene said.

It was a difficult decision to dissolve the organization, Lang said.

"Younger people are focused on their own jobs, their own networking," Stover said. "We no longer had a purpose. We didn't have a hook. We didn't have a reason to be."

"I think it is better to end something rather than to drag it on if it is not something that fills the need," Houghton said of the spring festival. "It didn't die because it wasn't done well. It really died because the rest of the world changed."

Members of the now dissolved group, whose mission was to promote St. Petersburg, now meet informally.

"We get together and reminisce," Graham said. "We've developed a lot of dear friends over the years. We're people of like minds. We love the city."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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