Blueberry Festival past, present & future

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Blueberry Festival past, present & future

The Florida Blueberry Festival notified the City of Brooksville that they are suspending the festival in downtown Brooksville, that they will not be entering into the lease for the Quarry Golf Course, and they will be vacating their City Hall office space by July 17, 2017. This has left the community abuzz with ideas on what a future festival could be and what should become of the quarry golf course. Out of the fray of ideas in regards to a festival, John Lee, owner of Coney Island, is taking the reigns and moving forward confidently with a continuation of a blueberry festival.

April 22 and 23 was the sixth festival organized by The Florida Blueberry Festival in Brooksville. The festival featured bands, vendors, a giant water slide and blueberries. It drew many of its visitors from out of the county and had a large marketing budget.

The Florida Blueberry Festival was heavily supported by local organizations, businesses, the county and the city of Brooksville. On their 2012 tax return, they indicated that they received public support in the form of gifts, grants, contributions and membership fees of $120,000 in 2010, $426,000 in 2011 and $423,000 in 2012. More recent tax returns were not available.
According to Blueberry Festival's web site a portion of the proceeds from The Florida Blueberry Festival went to help the local community, including American Legion Post 99, Boy Scout Troop 71, First United Methodist Church of Brooksville, Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, Hernando HS Leopard Quarterback Club, Hernando High School ROTC, Hernando High School Royale Regiment Band Boosters, Kiwanis Club of Ridge Manor, NAMI, Nature Coast Technical High School Tennis Team, Pure Country 4H Club, Rotary Club of Spring Hill Central, Springstead Marching Band, and the Vineyard Christian Church.

The City of Brooksville and the Florida Blueberry Festival were working on a lease agreement that would have the city renting the quarry park (Tom Varn Park) to the festival organization for a dollar a year for 40 years with an option for a 20 year lease. The Florida Blueberry Festival would have been responsible for developing a venue on the site. There was a stipulation in the lease that a master site plan must be approved by the Brooksville City Council (not unreasonably withheld) within 3 years and construction must begin within 5 years or the lease can be terminated.
The potential lease and public funding led to a public opposition which coalesced around the ‘Save the Brooksville Quarry’ Facebook group. Many members of the Facebook group enjoy the walking/jogging path that runs around the Quarry. The group attended city council meetings and let their opposition to the lease be known.

There are likely a number of factors surrounding the Florida Blueberry Festival Board of Directors decision to vacate Brooksville. The organization has made their decision and now the county and city of Brooksville has to decide if they are going to find or support a replacement for the Blueberry Festival or not.

The process of moving forward has begun on the city side, with a parks and recreation board meeting on Wednesday June 28th. The city of Brooksville is also looking to answer the question of what to do with the Quarry/Tom Varn Park property now that the lease agreement with the Florida Blueberry Festival is not moving forward. Many from the “Save the Quarry” group showed up and pledged volunteer support to the park. There was much discussion about possibly upgrading the disc golf course to 18 holes, which could drive revenue from competitions. Mike Barnett, owner of Sun King Disc Sports, spoke extensively on disc golf revenue opportunities. Barnett runs several disc golf tournaments in the area.

In regards to a festival, the parks and recreation board seemed to express a desire to continue a festival in Brooksville, but were open to other types of festivals outside of blueberries. It was said that someone needed to take the reigns.

The Executive Director of the Brooksville Main Street program, Ryan Malloy, questioned whether investing so many resources on a two day festival is really cost effective. He felt that it would be more effective to hold several smaller festivals throughout the year.

“I will tell you that most Main Street programs are successful in bringing small regularly attended events (to their communities). ”

“The resources that the Florida Blueberry Festival had to pull together… for two days out of the year… I would rather see them spread throughout the year...” said Malloy.

On the county side of things, Commissioner Steve Champion suggested a replacement festival held by the county, possibly partnering with the Parks and Recreation department.

Commissioner Champion coined the term “Corn Fest” and mentioned that Hernando county is known for “the best corn in the whole state.”

Corn is harvested from May through October, and such a large window of time could actually fit two festivals, perhaps one in spring and fall.

This was received favorably by the board, and will be on a future agenda for discussion. The cost to the county is expected to be the same.

Meanwhile, John Lee, owner of Coney Island, has begun to organize a 2018 Blueberry Festival to take place in Brooksville. He makes the argument that the large investment made by the community into the Florida Blueberry Festival should not go to waste. The city, county, local businesses and organizations put in hundreds of thousands of dollars over the festival’s lifetime.
Those resources are still here and there is no reason why they can’t continue to put on a blueberry festival in Brooksville.

He would like to see a 2018 festival downtown, but that will depend on county and city support. He has spoken with city and county representatives in an unofficial capacity and says there is interest.

He is speaking with potential sponsors, event planners and will begin visiting local blueberry growers to assess their interest in getting involved. He has also reached out to the Florida Blueberry Growers’ Association.

Lee explained that he does not want to get into the festival business and just wants to make sure the festival will continue. “I just didn’t want to see it go away,” said Lee.
Even if the downtown location doesn’t materialize for 2018, Lee states,

“I absolutely guarantee there will be a blueberry festival in Brooksville next spring.”

He said that the Jefferson Street area where Coney Island is located along with several of the other businesses in the vicinity could support the festival, albeit on a smaller scale, as long as the other business owners are on board.

However he is pursuing downtown as the best option and is working on dates to go before the city and county with a proposal.

“I have had a lot of support to push forward,” said Lee.

Lee stated that he’s been involved with festivals for about 30 years including the Taste of Pinellas and the Clearwater Jazz Fest. He believes the Blueberry festival can be affordable for families and can be economically viable for the community.

While the Florida Blueberry Festival organization and the Florida Blueberry Growers Association has parted ways with Brooksville and Hernando County, it looks like a blueberry festival will still take place in Brooksville next year. It will be interesting to see how things take shape with the variety of festival ideas floating around.

Lisa MacNeil contributed to this article.