Authority will try to keep festival

" ... We'll do what we can within our means to make the improvements to keep it here," executive director says.

Published March 29, 2005

TAMPA - Florida State Fair Authority officials say they hope to keep the Winter Equestrian Festival from moving to the east coast.

Festival officials say they will leave if the authority cannot deliver on its plan of seven years ago to fix dangerous footing in two arenas at the Bob Thomas Equestrian Center.

"We would truly hate to see it leave," Charles C. Pesano, the authority's executive director, said Monday. "It's a fine event for the area and we'll do what we can within our means to make the improvements to keep it here."

For starters, Pesano said, he is going to ask his equestrian center manager and agribusiness manager to put together a budget plan for the improvements.

The plan will be included in the authority's operating and capital budget for the next fiscal year, July 1 to June 30, and presented to the authority board at its annual budget meeting May 24 in the equestrian center pavilion.

"Budget requests for the next year would be approved at the meeting," Pesano said. The annual authority budget is between $13-million and $15-million, he said.

Michael Morrissey, executive director of the Winter Equestrian Festival, estimates a cost of $200,000 to rebuild the arenas.

The festival pays the authority $200,000 for its two weeks at the fairgrounds in March. Morrissey said he pays another $200,000 for an annual quarter-horse show he manages in late December and early January.

Before the festival opened in March 1998, the grass grand prix field was torn up by heavy equipment used to tear down a nearby stage. The authority filled in the field with a "quick fix" material to get the festival through its final two weeks.

"The plan was then to take everything out and reconstruct the field properly," Morrissey said. "It is seven years later and that never happened."

A second, smaller arena was filled with the material and it, too, was to be rebuilt.

Rain causes the footing in both arenas to become slick, risking slips and falls.

"When it gets wet, it's a dangerous situation for the horses and the riders," Morrissey said. Riders cancel when conditions are bad and the festival suffers in reputation and lost revenue, he said.

The nine-week festival is based in Wellington in Palm Beach County. The final two weeks have been in Tampa for more than 30 years and culminates in the leading show-jumping event in the United States: the $200,000 Budweiser American Invitational.

If the festival pulls out, Morrissey said, the Invitational likely would follow.