Festivals and Events – The Spark in Mount Dora’s Economic Engine is Up for Review

Locals gathering at a Special Event in Sunset Park in Downtown Mount Dora

The small village of Mount Dora, Florida is known far and wide as a hub of activity.

Quality festivals, events, restaurants, wine shops, salons, boutiques and cultural activities make the city hum, especially during the busy winter months.

In a world where it seems insanely simple for consumers to sit at home and part with their money by clicking a few computer keys, Downtown Mount Dora still manages to lure shoppers out into the world.  The city attracts locals, as well as visitors and tourists from all over the country. They are willing to drive to the downtown’s enticing array of great activities, shops, restaurants and pubs.  They wander the sidewalks, mingle with each other in shops, applaud through concerts, laugh through comedy shows, and relax together in restaurants.

Downtown Mount Dora’s events and festivals are a crucial aspect of its tourism engine, helping to feed the economy of all of Lake County. According to Lake County Economic Development and Tourism Director Robert Chandler, “Mount Dora is an asset for us. We can play up that role Mount Dora has, utilize its ability to draw people to its downtown and to its events – and once they’re here, in Lake County, we can encourage those visitors to enjoy all Lake County has to offer.  We want to help Mount Dora and their event organizers to be able to strengthen their marketing and advertising so they are bringing more people into the County,” he says, “that’s the idea.”

Photo Courtesy of Visit Mount Dora
Photo Courtesy of Visit Mount Dora

To that end, Lake County actively partners with special event, festival and fair organizers – and the city – to promote and market Mount Dora.  Just how important are Mount Dora’s festivals, concerts and events to Lake County?  Chandler’s department estimates that since 2011, the city’s events have pumped over $162,035,000.00 into the economy. That whopping number is surely even larger, because it only accounts for those Mount Dora events supported by Lake County’s Tourism arm.

In terms of scale, that dollar figure may be small potatoes to an Orlando or a Miami.  To Lake County – it’s huge.  That money flows through Mount Dora’s restaurants and shops – to the business owners and employees who work and live in Mount Dora – as well as the other thirteen cities that make up Lake County.

Event dollars flow through purchases and wages, creating ripples of commerce in ways that allow a small community like Mount Dora to enjoy a wealth of diverse dining and shopping offerings that most cities of 13,000 residents can only dream about. (Consider comparing the numbers of restaurants/shops located in the walkable downtowns of both of our Golden Triangle neighbors in Eustis (pop. 19,000) and Tavares (pop. 14,000) to the outstanding number and choices that Mount Dora enjoys.)

People come to Downtown Mount Dora to create a memory, to enjoy a worthwhile experience of some sort – one that local businesses hope is also associated with spending money.  That is the reason both small business and tourism work here.  Mount Dora, with its unique offerings and comfortable Old Florida setting, holds the promise of a day well spent.  It’s ‘someplace special,’ as the city’s tagline goes.  Residents and visitors can be assured there is almost always something special going on in Mount Dora.

Photo Courtesy of Visit Mount Dora
Photo Courtesy of Visit Mount Dora

When residents, visitors, and tourists spend their money downtown we all reap the benefits. A quick Google search shows many real estate ads touting relative proximity to downtown Mount Dora as a major benefit of purchase.  They do that for a reason.  Homes in and near Mount Dora have traditionally commanded more money than do similar counterparts in other Lake County cities – due largely to our beautiful downtown and its associated diverse offerings, many of which are not available in other communities.  Even current advertisements for residences selling just outside of Lake County brag that they are in Mount Dora.  Though they clearly aren’t in the city, it’s the place with which they want to be associated.

It wasn’t always so.  Several decades ago, the Mount Dora Craft Fair and the Arts Festival were created in hopes of bringing people into a near-vacant downtown. They were small events at that time, a hook created to draw the local public – integrating entertainment with spending. Through the hard work, determination and tenacity of those early event organizers, the events became hugely successful.  The city was pleased to play host in those early days – anything to spur the downtown economy.

Today, those two events draw hundreds of thousands of visitors and residents annually, making Mount Dora widely known across Central Florida and beyond. The pre-event advertising in print, on radio, internet, and television reaches millions of people. Those who come for festivals often return during quieter times to enjoy the town.  That’s all good for business.

Some residents rightfully find the influx of event visitors inconvenient to endure. Additional traffic and the associated disruptions in our routines aren’t often welcome, even when we know they represent money flowing into town.  Events have an impact on the growth of the city’s permanent population, as well. Many people in town know someone who claims they moved to Mount Dora after being introduced to, and then falling in love with the city, because of a festival or fair.  Events are part of the city’s history, culture, and growth.

It’s too easy to take the wonderful experiences available at our doorsteps for granted. After all, Walmart is cheaper; Amazon is easier.  Downtown Mount Dora doesn’t have plentiful parking on acres of asphalt in front of every shop. And, sitting at one’s computer in air-conditioned comfort while shopping from home is far less hassle than driving to a town, circling the block looking for parking, and then walking from shop to shop. Yet, thankfully, people come – many of them returning again, and again.

Monday, August 15, the Mount Dora City Council will hold a long overdue workshop to discuss the special events, concerts and festivals that are the city’s hallmark attractions.  Though there is a total of $260,000 associated with city events in the upcoming budget – much of that figure includes parks and recreation departmental salaries, vehicles, and other indirect expenditures which may still be incurred even if the city hosted substantially fewer events. The direct staff time associated with events is billed to and paid by the individual events, whose organizers do pay the city. According to financials supplied by the City of Mount Dora, the city currently contributes/spends about $88,000 on direct expenses associated with supporting events – mainly to its own signature events.

Photo Courtesy of City of Mount Dora
Photo Courtesy of City of Mount Dora

The city’s own signature, family-friendly events include Mount Dora’s Independence Day Celebration, December’s Snow in the Park, and the Scottish Highlands Festival.  For its financial contribution to those events, the local economy is estimated to benefit by $2.5 million dollars, annually, according to Lake County.

The expense for the other events, including the city’s oldest festival, the Mount Dora Bicycle Festival (now in its  42nd year) are paid for by the organizations who run them.  The funds over expenses incurred by the organizations go to their own critical operations.  The Bicycle Festival is run by and its expenses paid by the Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce. Likewise, the annual Arts Festival and the Fall Craft Fair, pay for services provided during festivals for which the city bills them.  (For these, the event organizers are the Mount Dora Center for the Arts and Visit Mount Dora, respectively.)  In turn, those groups use the proceeds from their events to carry out their organizations’ missions.

Mount Dora's oldest continuing festival is the Mount Dora Bicycle Festival, which is also a fundraising event for the Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce
Mount Dora’s oldest continuing festival is the Mount Dora Bicycle Festival, which is also a fundraising event for the Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce

Visit Mount Dora is primarily focused on advertising and promoting business and events within the historical downtown.  The mission of the Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce is to promote and sustain an economically viable community – while preserving the character and quality of life in Mount Dora.  The Mount Dora Center for the Arts is dedicated to serving the community by fostering an appreciation for the arts and culture.  The Mount Dora Community Trust supports community activities and organizations that provide services to the community.  Lake County Economic Development and Tourism works with local governments and companies to create a business-friendly environment and bring jobs to our area – contributing to many events.

Arts Festival Photo Courtesy of City of Mount Dora
Arts Festival Photo Courtesy of City of Mount Dora

None of the city’s events are done in a vacuum.  The collaboration, both organizationally and financially is far-reaching.  Mount Dora’s own Community Trust, the Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce, the Mount Dora Center for the Arts, Visit Mount Dora, Lake County Tourism and Economic Development, civic organizations (like the Rotary Club of Lake County Golden Triangle who put on the July 4th parade) and numerous private sponsors participate along with the city to add both quality and quantity to Mount Dora’s event calendar.  All are partners, in some form or fashion, leveraging a network of relationships that is necessary to both promote and hold the events that are a cornerstone of the economy.

Strikingly, none of the very active partners in Mount Dora’s tourism economy mentioned above has been invited to participate in the city council’s August 15 workshop.  What a shame.  It will be difficult for the council to hold a meaningful discussion about special events without asking these partners to participate, or at least conferring with them prior to the meeting.

This particular workshop was recently piggybacked onto a budget workshop and was just added to the city’s website on August 9th.  There has been no official communication from the city directly to special event organizers, nor with the businesses of downtown most affected by the presence or absence of special events.

All of the agencies and non-profits that put on and/or support special events, fairs, and concerts are dependent upon partnerships and community goodwill to operate and carry out their missions that serve Mount Dora and its economy.  All have paid staff.  All need to make money on these events to carry out their primary mission.  All work together in various ways to promote quality of life and to build a prosperous community – through tourism and enrichment programs for the city.  All are fulfilling a role not currently filled by Mount Dora’s government.

By holding special events, these local organizations make money for themselves that they use to serve critical functions within our tourism economy.  The local government has no promotional advertising budget to market to tourists, no center for the arts, and no activities or programs arranged to support networking for small business.  Local government is dependent upon the resources provided by these organization to market and advertise the town, to provide cultural enrichment, and to help businesses thrive.  It makes for a great arrangement, since virtually all of the expenses for the events (outside of the city’s own signature events) and the services they provide to the community – are paid for by the organizations and non-profits, themselves – sparing Mount Dora taxpayers from paying the freight.

4th of July Parade is put on by the Rotary Club of the Golden Triangle
4th of July Parade is put on by the Rotary Club of the Golden Triangle

Will event sponsors that provide these services stop holding events in downtown Mount Dora without enthusiastic city support, and an amicable partnership arrangement with the city?  Highly doubtful…at least for now.  But, Mount Dora is a festival and event city – it is a critical element of the city’s identity, branding, and economy.  For a council that frequently speaks of the importance of economic development and being business friendly, this discussion is not starting out well.

Mount Dora’s property values, and those of the surrounding area, are linked to downtown.  That downtown must, ultimately, “…depend upon the kindness of strangers,” to use a famous phrase.  Where kindness equals money, that kindness comes, in large part, from the tourism dollars brought here as the result of advertising.  Advertising that is provided by the city’s special events partners.  Residents dollars alone will not sustain the downtown business community. Outreach and marketing to a wider area is essential.

Together, Mount Dora’s special events partners provide an advertising reach and a tourism impact that downtown’s small businesses cannot effectuate individually.  It’s a role government is not fulfilling.  Many small towns have faltered and as their business clientele drifted away to the ho-hum mediocrity of volume pricing at big box stores and chain restaurants. Mount Dora has always been otherwise because of the community.  It has always been a community that saw the bigger picture and worked together to accomplish great things for this small town.  That includes a diverse event calendar that has kept residents and visitors orbiting around downtown.

Here’s hoping council is adequately prepared to have a meaningful workshop.  It is a great conversation to have.  But, meeting in haste in advance of their effort to pass some of their members’ first city budget may not be wise. Cutting or adding funds to coffers of critical partners, without thoughtful discussion and consideration of the potential economic ramifications is not wise.

A new city manager starts in September.  She should be brought up to speed about all that is involved, the organizations and agencies that bring advertising and services to the table – and what value those subsequent offerings provide to the community.  Also, the city currently has no economic development director.  The city’s special events calendar, and the numbers of visitors it generates for downtown would be critical components in developing an economic development plan.  That input, from the new director, should be thoughtfully considered, as well.  (Though council has indicated they would like to include $200,000 in the upcoming budget for an Economic Development Director, there is no indication of when that position would be filled. An April  2016 posting for an Economic Development/CRA Manager gleaned no appropriate applicants for the $86,000+ job.)

The city council needs to hold the conversation about the number of special events and the impact they have on residents, businesses and city resources.  It’s a good dialogue to have. But, with an agenda that simply says, “ Special Events Workshop,” and then offers only scant bullet points that speak just to the city’s role in events, it’s not likely to be productive.

People do want to understand the issues associated with special events and festivals.  They are part of Mount Dora’s identity.  Local opinions still fly hot and heavy over the decision made by the organizers of the Antique Boat Festival to move their event to Tavares – and that happened several years ago.

Mount Dora Spring Show
Mount Dora Spring Show

Gathering the active event organizers and/or sponsors around the table to really discuss what these events mean to the city could answer a lot of questions for council members and residents, alike. Discussing the number of events, the associated inconveniences they may entail and how they can be mitigated would be great topics of conversation.  Learning about the quality and the frequency of the events that add so much to our economy should be a council consideration.

Talk about their tremendous impact on the economy.  Find out who contributes to them and why.  Learn why they may be good or bad for Mount Dora.  It’s about so much more than just a single year’s budget.

The city’s reputation and its economy are greatly affected by the events that it hosts.  City council should have all of the information before them so that they are armed to make good, well-informed decisions before they act.

Don’t like the inconvenience and aggravation of putting up with special events downtown?  Let’s be careful exactly what we wish for, and let’s keep the city’s investment in events and festivals in the appropriate context with the returns that they provide.

Melissa DeMarco, Editor