A ceremony was held Aug. 4 to mark the placing of the grandstand’s last piece of structural steel.
Ten years ago, Rick Lott and Greg Buckner stood on some of the same soccer fields watching their sons play for the same team, neither man knowing the other. On Aug. 4, the two stood together as they became a part of Plant City — and Florida Strawberry Festival — history.
Lott, Plant City’s mayor and Buckner, general manager of GT Grandstands, were on hand to witness the final piece of structural
steel placed on the festival’s new grandstand seating, known as a “topping off” ceremony. It’s a major point in the construction process, Buckner said, the point where the structure beings to take shape and its final form is identifiable.
“We celebrate that point for a lot of reasons,” Buckner said. “One, it all fits and it’s all here. It’s a lot of work and there’s a lot left to do. It’ll probably be until the end of September that we’re finally 100% out of your way, but this is a big milestone.”
The 2018 Strawberry Festival will mark the first time in more than 40 years of headline concerts that fans are able to sit in seats designed for a concert-going experience, according to Florida Strawberry Festival Board Chairman Sandee Sytsma.
“We’ve been having and hosting these great names in the football stadium with concrete bleachers,” Sytsma said. “We’ve always wanted that experience to be a little better for, not only our guests, but for our entertainers. We wanted it more comfortable, sounding better, closer to the stage. We have that now, thanks to a lot of people.”
Since Dale Evans first headlined the 11-day festival in 1972, concerts held at what is now known as the Wish Farms Soundstage were on the grounds of the William Schneider Memorial Stadium, once the home of Plant City High School’s football team. Concert goers sat in backless concrete bleachers designed for watching football, not live music.
In the years since Evans’ first performance, the Festival has brought in major musicians spanning countless generations. In 2017 alone, wide-ranging performers like the Blues Brothers, Willie Nelson, Elle King and Patti LaBelle all played on the Wish Farms Soundstage.
Beginning in 2018, the festival’s headline concerts will have 2,000 new aluminum seats with backs, designed with the help of a sound engineer for better acoustics. The new grandstand seating wraps around the stage like an amphitheater. The seats are closer, too, ending where the old bleachers began.
The new grandstand, Buckner said, marks a historic point in the festivals 83-year history. It’s also a historic point for Plant City-based GT Grandstands, he said.
“It’s very rare, to say the least, for somebody in our industry to do
something of this significance in their own hometown,” Buckner said. “That means a lot to me. Plant City is my home town. I would be really proud to be a part of this structure if it was in Kansas or Tucson, Ariz. or anywhere else. But it’s not in Tucson. It’s in Plant City, Florida and we did it. It was all manufactured right here in Plant City.”
According to Florida Strawberry Festival President Paul Davis, construction of new seating has been in talks for many years. The idea began to take shape, Buckner said, when the festival’s board of directors started talking to GT Grandstands during a fair trade show in Las Vegas. Following much discussion and design and behind-the-scenes work, Buckner said, ground was broken on the new seats in March.
“There’s a saying, ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,’” Lott said. “I’m sure glad this time it didn’t. You brought it home to Plant City.”
The grandstand’s construction is due to be completed in the early fall, well ahead of March 1, 2018 when, at 3:30 p.m., next year’s first headliner is scheduled to perform.
During the festival’s 11-day run, the stage host’s about 24 headline performers. Festival attendance averages well over 500,000 people, with about 541,000 attending in 2017 and about 560,000 attending in 2016.
For Sytsma, and the rest of the festival’s board of directors, the topping off marked an exciting new era for the Strawberry Festival, which has grown from an effort by the Lion’s Club to celebrate the strawberry harvest, to being a nationally recognized festival, and one of Florida’s largest.
“We started small,” Sytsma said. “But we’ve come a long way, baby.”