Though everyone knows what happens during the 11 days of the Florida Strawberry Festival, it’s also a year-round operation that directly impacts the community.
There’s plenty about the Florida Strawberry Festival that makes it unique, from its army of 2,000 volunteers to the way so much of Plant City’s identity is tied to it. But another thing that makes Plant City’s festival stand out is something many of the more than 560,000 annual attendees might not consider: what happens in mid-March when the party’s over and the grounds revert back to normal.
You could consider mid-March through the rest of the year to be the festival’s “offseason,” but the only people involved with the festival who aren’t working on it in some capacity are many of those volunteers. There’s just about always something going on at the festival grounds, whether it’s upgrades and repairs or facility rentals for community and private events.
Much of the money made by the festival does come from you, but not in the same way as most big fairs and festivals — instead, it’s coming from ticket sales leading up to the festival and through its 11 days. The Florida Strawberry Festival refuses to take any subsidization money from the state of Florida, meaning Hillsborough County tax dollars aren’t funding its $12 million annual operating budget at all, and the festival has also abstained from raising its admission prices for the last 33 years.
“We’re proud of that,” Florida Strawberry Festival Chairman Dub McGinnes said. “We are successful at the ticket booth, with the entertainment, et cetera. That gives us money to operate on, and then we take the additional money to improve our grounds and our facilities. That gives us a cash flow and a base to not only do our operation but to give back to the community, as well.”
Throughout the rest of the year, the festival makes extra money by renting out facilities like the TECO Expo Hall and the Charlie Grimes Family Agricultural Center for events. The festival grounds are also home to large-scale events like the annual Christmas Lane displays, smaller events like the Fancy Flea or day-long or weekend-long shows, other markets or exhibitions, and even a local wrestling club, Top Gun Wrestling Academy. Each event is carefully considered by the festival before any agreement is made to use the space, so as to respect the property and well-being of the homeowners, schools and businesses adjacent to the festival grounds.
“Part of the deal we have worked out with our neighbors — we’re very sensitive to the people that live around here — is that for 11 days, the sound, the noise, the traffic, they’re OK with it because, more often than not, they park cars in their yard and this is an income-producing thing for them,” McGinnes said. “Now, you take in August or another month where we would park on the midway if we were gonna have events like that, that would take advantage of the people that live here and we feel very uncomfortable about doing that.”
The maintenance department, led by Vice President of Operations Tim Lovett, works year-round to keep the festival grounds and its buildings in top shape and address any issues that may arise. One of the biggest recent projects, for example, was the installation of the current Wish Farms Sound Stage grandstands that started in March 2017, right after the festival ended, and was officially unveiled to the public in January 2018.
“Typically, if we have been as successful as we planned, we have other major improvements planned going forward and some of these projects take the full year,” McGinnes said. “The stadium deal, between that and the new expo hall behind it, that was in excess of $5 million and we had to start right afterward to get that construction going. Two weeks after the previous festival, we broke ground. We completed it just before the next festival opened.”
The festival does employ full-time staff members who work year-round, starting on the next year’s festival as soon as their work regarding that year’s event wraps up. The entertainment committee, in fact, has already made offers to entertainers for the 2021 festival.
One of the biggest donations the festival makes happens during the 11 days. The festival chooses to partner with the dozens of schools, businesses, clubs, churches, civic groups and more for additional festival parking and, for many, festival parking turns into one of the most lucrative fundraisers they’ll have all year. McGinnes said the local partners received north of $105,000 last year alone and that money helps many youth programs in the area.
But the festival also helps out during the rest of the year. One longstanding example of the Florida Strawberry Festival’s charitable work is through its annual Strawberry Ball. All of the money the festival raises from the event’s ticket sales, auctions and sponsorships is rounded up and donated to a local organization of the festival’s choosing. The United Food Bank of Plant City has been the recipient of the last three Strawberry Ball donations, most recently getting a check for $30,875 in July 2019.
Why would a festival take the time to give back to the community? It’s actually a simple answer: because without the community’s support, the Florida Strawberry Festival wouldn’t be anything like what it is today.
“One of the main reasons we’re successful is our volunteers,” McGinnes said. “I know people who take their vacations so they can volunteer at the festival. They’ve got skin in the game. It’s their community. They’re proud of our festival. That’s what creates this warm feeling that differentiates us from other festivals.”