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'Big event' promoters deliver only promise

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 21, 2002


My colleague in columny, Elijah Gosier, wrote the other day about a group of young people from the Police Athletic League who had not seen any of the $35,000 they expected for PAL's volunteer work at Bay Fest, the outdoor concert held in May on St. Petersburg's public waterfront.

This is not a unique situation. There have been other times that the city entered into an agreement to turn over the public's parks, streets or resources to a promoter, and somebody -- the taxpayers, or a civic group -- was left holding the bag.

In January 2001, for example, St. Petersburg agreed to co-produce something called "Super Fest," which was a late attempt to cash in on Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa. It was supposed to be a grand, three-stage affair.

Instead, it turns out that the "experience" promised by one of the promoters consisted of selling roasted corn at concession stands. Super Fest was a super flop. One headline act refused to play. Another was canceled. The whole fiasco ended six hours early. The promoters still owe the city money.

Another of the victims, at least in the short term, was the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Suncoast, which had hoped to raise about $50,000. The constant pressure of having to raise money, executive director Carl Lavender told me, "makes us vulnerable to these kinds of pitches."

(Fortunately, Lavender said, something good came out of it -- one of the promoters later agreed to supply a grant writer, who helped the clubs land other money.)

The downtown auto races of the 1990s resulted in a lingering debt to the city. Last year, the American Power Boat Association Offshore demanded that the city cough up more tax money for that group's offshore races, while still owing $63,000 to the city from the previous year. These debts resulted in settlements. Even the tall-ship festival scheduled for next weekend is still scrambling for last-minute financing. The city already has waived some of its fees; it will be a miracle if the public's costs are covered.

Next February, the city will surrender its downtown for an auto race, in return for supposed international glamor: 100-foot yachts pouring into Tampa Bay, and beautiful images of the city broadcast around the world.

In making his pitch to the City Council, according to a news article from last November, race official Christopher Pook:

* * *

. . . promised to form a local nonprofit foundation to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity in the week leading up to the race. And he promised to fill the downtown with deep-pocketed visitors, some of whom might so enjoy their stay that they move their homes or businesses here.

* * *

Aha! I so eagerly await these deep-pocketed visitors, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars to be raised for charity.

Anita Treiser, the city's marketing director, told me Thursday that for "co-sponsored" events -- those that seek a city contribution -- the city performs background checks and requires promoters to pay in advance for police services, typically the largest of the city's costs. The rest are paid after the fact.

But, Treiser said, the city is not involved directly in the promoters' relationships with not-for-profit groups. Neither is the city privy to the promoters' contracts with performers, or the promoters' financing arrangements.

Only two promoters, Bay Fest and Super Fest, now owe the city any money, and Bay Fest is still within the 30-60-90-day billing cycles and not even late yet, Treiser said. No one who does still owe the city can get a new co-sponsorship, or even a park permit.

There are a lot of great events in St. Petersburg. They're good for the city's quality of life. Still, sometimes it feels as though St. Petersburg is so afraid of not getting a date for the prom that it will let anybody throw up chicken wire around Vinoy Park. The city should consider getting tougher, especially in protecting not-for-profits. No one who fails to pay a not-for-profit should be allowed back.

Neither is it unreasonable to look more closely at promoters' financial backing and their contracts, and to require them to post a performance bond or some other guarantee. Otherwise, there is plenty going on in town already. Nobody will miss the ones who refuse.

-- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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