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Rippling effects of recession impact local community event
Feb 18, 2010 - 8:59:56 PM

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Ruskin – Responding to the rippling effects of an ongoing economic recession, this community’s historic annual tomato festival is relocating.

The spring, 2010, version of the yearly event now is being planned for acreage adjacent to the SouthShore campus of Hillsborough Community College, according to Fred Jacobsen, a director of the festival’s sponsoring organization, the Ruskin Community Development Foundation (RCDF).

Other changes also are in store, Jacobsen added, including institution of free admission.

Moving the two-day festival from its previous site in E.G. Simmons Park, a regional facility in Hillsborough County’s network of public parks and the festival’s home for the last several years, has been prompted in part by recently-imposed fees for park use, Jacobsen indicated. “The new fee schedule would have both increased attendance charges for every family visiting the festival and eliminated the substantial help by park rangers that we depended on,” he noted.

Then, too, attendance at the annual event has declined slightly but steadily in recent years, Jacobsen said. “Attendance has decreased by a few hundred a year for several years and in 2009 totaled about 7,000,” he added, “also contributing to a somewhat scaled back festival this year.”

On November 1, 2009, the county administration through its parks, recreation and conservation lands division established a schedule of user fees in connection with the county parks system. While the fees vary from facility to facility, depending on the features available, some charges are consistent, John Brill, department spokesman, said this week. At Simmons Park, just as at other parks, the entrance fee now is $2 per vehicle (up to eight persons) and charges for use of shelters ranges from $40 to $225 per day, depending on the shelter size, he said. Other fees or increases would apply to overnight camping or boat launching.

What’s more, when it comes to a festival type of function staged in a park, the fee situation can become more complicated, depending on whether the county is a co-sponsor of the event, Brill said. The county administration, confronted with severe budgetary shortfalls as the recession deepened, implemented a number of cost-cutting measures such as staff layoffs, mandatory unpaid furlough days and hiring freezes as well as revenue generating moves such as, for the first time, the park user fees. “And this is all new to us,” Brill said, “it’s definitely a work in progress.” Consequently, fees related to public events conducted by organizations in the county’s parks are addressed on a case-by-case basis, with associated fees reduced or discounted when the county becomes a co-sponsor with its involvement and logo prominently displayed, Brill indicated.

As an example, Brill cited the upcoming chili cook-off event being co-sponsored by the county and the non-profit friends of the parks support group scheduled for Saturday at E.G. Simmons Park. The only monies expected to accrue to the county parks department will be the $2 per vehicle entry charge, Brill noted. The $3 per bowl of chili paid by cook-off visitors for the opportunity to try and then vote on the various chili preparations offered will go to the support group as will the $12 space rental paid by vendors participating in the flea market, he added. Brill said he expects the fees paid by the various chili cooks taking part in the event will comprise the award money presented to winners.

But, in the case of the tomato festival which is a primary fund raiser for the non-profit RCDF and not co-sponsored by the county or any of its divisions, the financial picture would look differently, Jacobsen estimated. Festival organizers would have had to pay at least $450 for two-day use of the large shelter where much of the entertainment has been staged in the past. Added to this would be new costs associated with hiring park rangers and possibly security forces to perform imperative services formerly available at no charge, he said. Then, there’s that park entry fee, in effect, tacked onto the festival entry charge for the consumer.

When the tomato festival as currently being planned opens on May 1 this year, there will be no admission charge whatsoever to the festival grounds spread out over acreage immediately east of the community college campus at the corner of Shell Point Road East and 24th Street, Jacobsen said. Preferred parking is to be available for $5 per vehicle in the college parking lots and those funds will be earmarked for HCC scholarships, he added.

Additional parking at reduced or no charge also is being considered for the lots now existing in the South Shore Corporate Park farther east on 30th Street. “And, there’s a possibility we may be able to run a shuttle from the corporate park lots to the festival grounds,” Jacobsen noted.

The 2010 festival as it now is taking shape will feature many of the components visitors experienced during previous versions – two days of variety entertainment, an array of food vendors including, of course, those offering fresh tomato slices, and the wide selection of decorative or utilitarian goods brought in by vendors from around the southeast. Among the new features anticipated this year is a beer pavilion, Jacobsen said.

The popular potted tomato plants also are expected to be on hand, he noted. This year, however, the plants are to be sold at a nominal price to benefit local Future Farmer of America chapter projects.

The local tomato festival, which has been reinventing itself in keeping with the times since the 1930s, may be a trimmed down version this year, Jacobsen summed up, “but the objective remains unchanged: an entertaining event with something for every member of the family that can be enjoyed at a reasonable cost.”
© 2010 Melody Jameson

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