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Amidst controversy, Florida Blueberry Festival won't return to Brooksville

BROOKSVILLE — The Florida Blueberry Festival will not return to Brooksville, and the controversial lease that the festival had forged with the City Council will not be signed.

City officials were informed Monday morning, the day they expected festival organizers to finally sign the $1-a-year, 40-year lease for the Quarry Golf Course property, the festival's board of directors had voted to not sign the lease, to pull out of next year's festival planned for downtown Brooksville and to vacate its office in City Hall by July 17.

Several hours later, the City Council voted unanimously to void the lease, ending what had become a divisive saga for the city.

The council was slated on Monday night to discuss the reasons why the lease had not been signed, even though it had been four months since it was approved by a bitterly divided council. The discussion came to a head recently when a number of city residents and nonresidents began showing up at council meetings, complaining about the terms of the lease and begging that the city's park lands be saved.

Those residents were back Monday night after word began to spread that the festival was pulling out of Brooksville. They voiced happiness that the lease was being voided and that city lands could still be used by the public. Others asked the city to work harder in the future to inform residents about what the council was doing.

Focus turned to the meeting last November when the proposed lease, which had gotten no public discussion up to that point, was set to be approved. For the first time, council member Natalie Kahler said she had tried to talk former City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha out of putting the item on the agenda, but did not push the issue because she knew it would not fly.

Kahler said Norman-Vacha's decision to move forward showed a lack of understanding of what the public wanted, and that's when Kahler said she decided it was time to terminate Norman-Vacha's contract.

The council voted to not renew Norman-Vacha at the same marathon meeting in February when it approved the Blueberry Festival lease.

The letter from the festival organizers to Mayor Robert Battista on Monday announced the festival board's decision and noted, "We want to thank the City Council and the citizens of Brooksville/Hernando County for their past support."

Michael Heard, who has headed up the festival since it began in 2011, echoed that sentiment, saying that she was grateful to the community for its support and that the only reason the festival will move on is because it has outgrown downtown Brooksville, that it needs a bigger venue and that organizers don't have time to develop the Quarry property in time for a 2018 festival.

Renegotiating with the city was not on the table, Heard said.

"They have given us the best offer they could. This is nothing about the city," she said. "We just made a decision that it's just time to move forward."

The festival corporation will not shut down — it will look for a new location, Heard said.

Kahler called the news "the biggest economic development offer we have lost" during her years in the city and time on the council and blamed negativity in the community for the end of the festival.

The lease was designed to allow festival organizers to develop a year-round venue that could have included a convention center, an arena, a concert hall, a visitor center and other facilities. It was strongly supported by several city business leaders. But some residents and businesses blasted the council, saying the lease would pull the festival out of downtown Brooksville and amounted to a giveaway of city property.

"I'm ecstatic, beyond ecstatic," said council member Betty Erhard, who strongly opposed the lease. "This is a great opportunity for the city to take the ball and run with it" to develop something positive for the community.

Erhard also said that she would like to know "the real reasons" why the festival is pulling out and that she has questions about, "Where is the money and how was it spent?"

Several members of the audience Monday night and city officials talked about what should happen next, with some even suggesting that if the proper organizer could be found, there could be a Brooksville Blueberry Festival in the future.

Others wanted to see improvements at the Quarry and at other city parks. But Kahler explained that the city cannot afford expensive amenities, and that is why the lease was approved — to have someone else pay to improve the property.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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