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    Event conscious

    Owed money from two festivals and feeling heat from another, St. Petersburg looks to protect its interests.

    [Times photo: Kevin German]
    Erin Russell of Clearwater fans herself as she stands in a long line of people waiting to see the tall ships during the festival held last month in St. Petersburg. Many of those who attended complained they weren't ever able to get onto the ships, and that police were writing parking tickets for minor parking offenses.

    By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 17, 2002

    ST. PETERSBURG -- The concert festival 2001 Super Fest played to an empty park and shut down early.

    In May, the promoter of Chrysler/Jeep Bay Fest overspent and has so far failed to pay the city.

    And last month, Americas' Sail 2002 brought tens of thousands of visitors into downtown but frustrated and disappointed many of them with poor organization, long lines on hot days and expensive tickets.

    So City Council members want to make sure that downtown events put on by private promoters and sponsored by the city draw new visitors and enhance St. Petersburg's image, not damage it and drive people away.

    St. Petersburg's pattern of difficulties with one-time, highly hyped events raises questions about how the city will fare when a downtown CART race arrives early next year or when the next parade of ships comes to town.

    City officials defend their preparations and say it is the responsibility of promoters to deliver what they promise. But the City Council is also questioning whether changes are needed to better protect the city's image and bank account.

    Council members are most forgiving of the sailing festival's snags. Most accept organizer Don Shea's explanation that the ship festival's problems were normal, albeit serious, first-time glitches.

    Still, council member Bill Foster said, Shea will have to "do some P.R. to quell people's fears" before holding a similar event in the future.

    The dud concert events anger City Council members more. Council members are indignant that the city has twice gone unpaid after allowing event promoters to take over a downtown city park to try to make a profit.

    The $17,539.46 check for city services from 2001 Super Fest promoter Dee>Art Productions bounced. Police are investigating.

    And this week, the unpaid bill of about $15,000 for the Chrysler/Jeep Bay Fest in May was turned over to the city's collection department.

    Both failures hurt charities, too. The Boys and Girls Clubs of the Suncoast missed out on about $50,000 they hoped to earn staffing Super Fest. And the Police Athletic League has not received the $35,000 the group was promised for selling beer at Bay Fest.

    "I am concerned with the city's image, but look at what happened to those kids," said council member Virginia Littrell. "That's the bad thing."

    Chris Cantwell, a partner in SC Marketing & Events, said 70 percent of vendors have been paid in full. But he said money is short, and the company hopes to settle the other debts for less than full value.

    City Council members would like to protect charities, but are unsure how.

    However, a council consensus is forming around a simple idea to protect the city's financial interest.

    "On events for profit, they should pay the city's total estimated costs in advance," council member John Bryan said.

    The city already requires payment up front for police service at events.

    Foster said it is clear that the city's background checks on the promoters didn't prevent the city from being shorted either time.

    City Marketing Director Anita Treiser, who works with the promoters who stage special events downtown, chafes at the suggestion that she and her staff are not doing enough to protect the city.

    "While you never want to be in a position where someone can't pay, we have a very, very good track record of this not happening," she said.

    She worries that if the city becomes unwilling to assume some "carefully managed" risk, it won't draw new, quality events.

    But when Miami's special events coordinator Bobby Starke was asked if that city lets promoters pay for city services after the event, he responded, "No, no, no. They have to pay three days before the event."

    Jacksonville collects in advance, too.

    "We did a lot of research on that," said Jacksonville public relations coordinator Wendy Raymond Hacker. "I think (to the promoters) it's just the cost of doing business, and it's the smart thing to do. It is pretty standard."

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