tampabay.com

Loss of Spring Fest depresses many

A casualty of budget cuts surprises merchants and even the Gulfport City Council.

By CRISTINA SILVA
Published February 13, 2007


GULFPORT - The cancellation of a popular festival has left city officials and business owners looking for answers.

Spring Festival, the city's annual showcase of artists, rock bands and pushcart vendors, was canceled this year, but until last week, few knew about it, including the City Council.

Turns out the city staff quietly dropped the event as part of massive budget cuts that were made in September.

Now some business owners and City Council members said they are shocked that one of the city's largest events was canceled without any public discussion, particularly in a year where some merchants have complained of lower foot traffic along Beach Boulevard.

Spring Festival, an 11-year tradition that draws about 1,500 people to downtown Gulfport each year, is considered one of the largest economic generators for businesses in the area.

"Our businesses downtown are suffering and you just took away one of their major events," said council member Michele King, who questioned the city staff last week about why the council had not been informed of the decision.

King said she learned the street fair would not be held this year while attending a recent Chamber of Commerce meeting.

"If someone had said, in order to make this cut, we are going to cancel this major event, Spring Fest, I think the council would have looked to make the cuts somewhere else," said King, who is running for re-election.

Leisure Services director Jim O'Reilly said he canceled the event after the council told him to reduce overtime expenses.

City expenditures were reduced in September after the City Council voted to lower the millage rate by 10 percent.

Canceling Spring Festival saved the city $8,000, O'Reilly said.

But the end of the festival means a loss for some others.

The Gulfport Chamber of Commerce usually earns $1,200 at the event by selling hot dogs and renting out space in the Gulfport Casino to vendors who want to promote their businesses.

"That doesn't sound like a lot," said Greg Stemm, executive director of the chamber, "but for a small chamber, that has an impact on our budget."

By the numbers

Gulfport's Spring Festival

1,500 people the festival drew downtown each year

11 years Gulfport has had the festival

$8,000 saved by the city by canceling the event

$1,200 usually earned by the Gulfport Chamber of Commerce through hot dog sales, vendor space