By October, the Florida Strawberry Festival will have completed improvements for seating around the Wish Farms Soundstage and a new building for vendors.
On Friday, March 3, Willie Nelson packed the stands of the Wish Farms Soundstage for a sold-out show at the 2017 Florida Strawberry Festival.
Just over one week later, Rascal Flatts nearly sold out their show the final night of the 2017 festival. For Florida Strawberry Festival General Manager Paul Davis, the popular show was the perfect way to end the festival — and the perfect way to celebrate the history of the festival’s biggest venue.
Known to many as the William Schneider Memorial Stadium, the bleachers that surround the Wish Farms Soundstage will soon be torn down and replaced with updated aluminum seats.
“We’re adding an extra 2,000 sellable seats,” Davis said. “We’ve been discussing this for about eight years.”
The bleachers weren’t always designed to accommodate a concert venue. From the 1960s until the 1980s, the stadium was used for football games and practices. Throughout the years, multiple events were held on the grounds — from the Florida Strawberry Festival’s Queen Scholarship pageant to revivals to sunrise Easter services.
“We’ve been playing a music venue in a football stadium,” Davis said. “The bleachers are sideways. After watching a concert for an hour and a half, your neck hurts. We’re going to give people a better line of sight.”
The new seats will additionally be brought closer to the stage, ending where the existing bleachers begin. The new seats will have backs to them and will form a semi-circle around the stage, creating more room and, as Davis said, enhancing the experience for both concert guests and performers.
“We’re also going to be adding bigger screens,” Davis said. “We’re trying to enhance the experience substantially.”
Vendors will also be seeing changes. By the 2018 festival, the vendors that are located outdoors below the existing bleachers will have an 18,000-square-foot building to call home.
“We haven’t named the building yet,” Davis said. “But the new building will be air-conditioned and will have climate control. Down the road, we’ll see how it affects traffic flow and go from there. We’re considering adding more bathrooms in the future.”
Construction on both the stadium and the vendor building is expected to begin immediately, with a groundbreaking ceremony scheduled for Monday, March 20. The stadium project, which is being completed by GT Grandstands on Sydney Road, is expected to be completed by October 2017.
“We really strive to make people feel welcome,” Davis said. “We want to make the experience pleasant all the way through. I want people to come back. If you can do that, you have a success.”
While Davis and the rest of the festival staff are looking to the future, they’re also making sure to pay tribute to the past.
One Final Memory
Florida Strawberry Festival Vice President Sandee Sytsma and her husband, Hank, remember using the stadium before it belonged to the festival.
For Hank Sytsma, those memories are centered around football. He served as the coach of the Plant City High School football team from 1966 through 1981. Before becoming a coach, he served on the freshmen football team for Florida State University, and played a game against the University of Miami in that same arena.
“That was our football stadium,” Hank Sytsma said. “That was one of the best spectator stadiums.”
It got the players in shape, too. For conditioning, football players ran up and down the massive bleachers.
“Men that are now in their 60s still remember running the stadium,” Hank Sytsma said. “There were walls under the stadium where the vendors are now, and we used that as a weight room.”
The stadium was used for other events as well, including a rodeo that used to stop in town. After the show, the Sytsmas would stop to fill the holes in the ground, repairing the land for the next practice or game.
Once the high school got its own stadium, the festival eventually purchased the William Schneider Memorial Stadium and turned it into the existing concert venue.
“We’re always looking for ways to improve our festival,” Sandee Sytsma said. “But we don’t want to lose who we are. We tried to donate the bleachers, but city organizations didn’t need them.”
Still, they wanted history to be remembered. Following the groundbreaking ceremony for the stadium improvements, a memorial photo in front of the stands will be taken at 4:30 p.m. Monday, March 20. All former cheerleaders, coaches, players, supporters and fans of the Plant City High School Raiders, Tomlin Middle Tigers, the Dolphins and the Colts are invited to come, especially those who used the stadium between the years of 1954 to 1986.
“So many Plant City friends have special memories involving the stadium,” Sandee Sytsma said. “We’re inviting everyone that wants to be in a memory picture to come.”
Contact Emily Topper at [email protected].