Looking Back: A risk worth taking
This will be the Seafood Festival’s 23rd year, held on Nov. 5 and 6.
RUSKIN - Things had started to look bleak for the Ruskin Chamber of Commerce back in 1999 when John Cregier was elected president.
Money was tight and members knew they were at a point where something had to change.
“Bake sales and yard sales were about all we’d had as fundraisers,” said Sandy Council, while recalling her time with the chamber that year. “We were really short of money for expenses and events.”
That’s when John got the idea to call on the expertise of a newly-made friend, Jack Laurie of Apollo Beach. Jack was a retired superintendent of schools who had recently retired to South County with his wife Irene. During his long career, Jack had had a lot of experience with both major events and marketing.
“I asked him if he wanted to take on a full-time job with part-time pay,” John said. “The first thing we needed him to do was investigate ways to raise funds.”
Jack was the first executive director of the chamber. Until then, it had been all-volunteer.
Everyone on the chamber board agreed they needed a major event, but the chamber had very little money to put one on.
The late Gene McRoberts, a large-scale national fish broker from Ruskin who was active in the chamber, suggested a seafood festival. He knew of several festivals around the state, one example being in Manatee County, where groups made money while putting on a memorable event that drew thousands of people to their area.
“I was scared to death,” John said in an interview last week. “I had a good board to go along with it. We had to lay out some serious money, and that was a real challenge. If we hadn’t made it back, we knew the chamber would be totally bankrupt. We were running on a zero budget.”
John recalled that the amount they had to spend was around $7,000 but said he could not be sure. “It may not have been that high, but it was a large amount we couldn’t afford to lose,” he said. “I was really sweating bullets.”
The Cypress Gardens Ski Show was called in, recalled Sandy. “Because of that, we ended up having a really large attendance.”
For several years, the event was held at Bahia Beach.
Twelve to $14,000 was taken in the first year, said Jack. “I was finally able to breathe in a real sigh of relief.”
Sandy was chairwoman of the seafood festival committee and later became president of the chamber. “We decided to make the Ruskin Seafood Festival an annual event,” she said. “Gradually we outgrew Bahia, and around the same time it changed ownership.”
As Bahia Beach went through major change with new development, the event moved to E.G. Simmons Park on 19th Avenue in Ruskin and continued to draw large crowds each year. Last year more than 18,000 people attended.
This will be the festival’s 23rd year. It will be held 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday Nov. 5 and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday Nov. 6 at E.G. Simmons Park, 2401 19th Ave. N.W. in Ruskin.
Like other years, seafood of all kinds will be featured, along with music, kid’s games and crafts areas.
“Music will be provided by Democracy, back by popular demand from last year, and a steel drum band from Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater,” said Melanie Morrison, executive director of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce.
This is the first major event since the merger of the Ruskin and Apollo Beach chambers into the South Shore chamber which took place earlier this year. Because of the merger, the festival has 24 committee members which is more than ever before.
Crab racing, another favorite from previous years, will be put on by the National Crab Racing Association. Jumbo the clown; bouncy houses; a Mad Science tent; and hands-on arts and crafts will be featured as well. More information on crab racing can be viewed at www.crabrace.com.
There will be beer and wine available for purchase in a relaxed atmosphere at The Sandbar which will be an outdoor lounge spot with cement picnic tables and landscaping.
Also new this year is a children’s pirate-themed bicycle parade which will end at the official float of Ye Royal Krewe of Charlotte De Berry, an all woman’s “sisterhood” group that works to better their communities.
“Gasparilla plays a large part in Tampa Bay,” said Tracy Cannon-Gray, this year’s chairwoman of special events. “So we thought it would be good to add some pirate theme to the festival.”
Children of all ages are encouraged to decorate their bicycles and costume themselves in either pirate or nautical theme for the parade, Sunday, Nov. 6, with line-up at 10 a.m. The parade will start at 10:30.
“We’re also having a dunk tank with teachers and staff from East Bay High School in it to benefit their football team,” Tracy said.
This past year, since the last festival, the Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department has initiated a $2 fee per carload to enter its parks which will also apply on the days of the festival.
Once inside, the admittance charge to the festival is $5 with children under 12 free with an adult.
To find out more about the festival, visit ruskinseafoodfestival.com; or call the South Shore Chamber at 813-645-3808.