Mount Dora’s Festivals and Fairs – Their Benefits and Challenges

Festivals and special events are an integral part of Mount Dora’s branding and its identity.

The Mount Dora Arts Festival and Craft Fair are signature events, designed to make a statement about the city, raise money for the organizations that run them and bring a boost of business to the compact and historic downtown.  Mount Dora’s neighbors in Tavares and Eustis also host their own defining downtown events.  But, each of the cities in the Golden Triangle takes a different approach to operational, organizational and financial support of their events.

Why have festivals and events?  To add to the quality of life for residents and to draw business – business which is essential to the tourist-driven economy of Central Florida.  Prevailing wisdom in Mount Dora’s downtown community has always held that, if the festival experience is a good one, the impressed attendee of the event will return during quieter times to enjoy the town.  That return visitor will shop, dine and stay to experience all the town has to offer. If special events are well organized and well run, they are an advertisement in themselves, with each attendee carrying home the message of a day well spent and a community worth visiting again and again.

So what does it take to attract crowds to fairs, festivals, and special events?  Support from the local government is essential.  Grants from tourism taxes, municipal support staff, volunteers and a customer base are all elements used to bolster large-scale successful events. A web presence, print media, radio, television and targeted marketing by the event organizers is critical to draw crowds.  Social media, like Facebook and marketing/promotional and travel blogs are also used extensively.

In Eustis, the signature event in the city’s calendar is GeorgeFest.  Held eachGeorgeFest February, the event is a partnership between the local government and the Lake Eustis Area Chamber of Commerce.  GeorgeFest celebrates George Washington and American patriotism, attracting approximately 24,000 visitors to Eustis over a 3-day weekend.  The Chamber facilitates the event, with $20,000 in funds provided by the city.  The event weekend typically includes fireworks, parades, food and craft vendors, carnivals and storefront decorating contests. The Fourth of July celebration is a staple, as it is in all cities in the Golden Triangle, along with the Folk Festival and Light-Up Eustis. Those events are supported city personnel and grants that run upwards of $40,000.

Plaines-Trains-and-BBQ-Tavares-1-FLIn Tavares, the city “owns” and controls several of the events held in its downtown.  The city manages, organizes, and promotes the Planes, Trains & BBQ, the Seaplane Fly-in, Christmas Light Up and Fourth of July events.  Because Tavares directly controls those events, local government bears the full weight of all expenses, logistics and advertising.  They control the message and the method by which the events are operated. The event cost to the city runs about $90,000/year.  Tavares is also a major sponsor and host to events like the Sunnyland Classic Boat Show, Dragon Boat Races HydroDrag World Championships. Events draw thousands to the downtown entertainment district in Tavares, most geared toward drawing Lake County residents. Like Mount Dora and Eustis, the goal is to draw visitors in to support the downtown economy.

While Tavares tends to hold its events primarily along its renovated waterfront entertainment district, Mount Dora holds its largest events right in the heart of its historic village.  From the Mount Dora Center for the Arts annual Arts Festival, to the Fall Craft Fair, Blueberry Festival, Christmas Walk, Spring Collectibles and Craft Show, the December Half Marathon, and this week’s Plant and Garden Fair all are held on the streets of downtown.  There are, literally, dozens of other, smaller events held annually in downtown, as well.

In Tavares and Eustis, while most events are coordinated and run through those cities’ Economic Development Departments. Mount Dora’s event coordination is done through the Parks and Recreation Department’s Chris Carson, the City’s Cultural and Special Events Coordinator.

Mount Dora’s total tab to provide support for special events is significantly higher than the other cities – but so is the numbers and variety of events.  Mount Dora’s special event budget runs upwards of $200,000 annually.  Like Eustis and Tavares, Mount Dora picks up the tab for the Christmas holiday celebrations in its parks and its Fourth of July Celebrations.  But, the largest of the city’s events are the February Arts Festival and the October Craft Fair.  Most of the fees associated with those events are paid by the  organizations that run them.  Profits, after expenses, go to the event organizers.

Unknown-13For example, the funds collected by the Mount Dora Center for the Arts during the annual Arts Festival keep the Center for the Arts operating year-round, according to Board President Michell Middleton. “The proceeds from the art festival are used to pay to keep the art center open all year. It covers all the operational and building expenses – mortgage, utilities, insurance and taxes on our building.  We also cover salaries for two full-time and one part-time employees.  The money pays for a health insurance stipend for them.  It gives us the opportunity to provide art supplies for art classes, and pays for our computers and printers.”

More controversial, is how the funds collected through the Fall Craft Fair are spent.  The nonprofit organization that runs that, Visit Mount Dora™ (VMD) is an offshoot of the former Mount Dora Village Merchant’s Association.  VMD’s mission, according to their website is, “To promote Mount Dora, with a focus on its historical downtown, fostering business awareness through various marketing activities including event production, event sponsorship, marketing, media relations & other promotional activities for the purposes of stimulating, enhancing and maintaining the economic vitality of our local business community.”

Given that the City of Mount Dora has no marketing budget, but its economy (especially in downtown) depends largely upon tourism, their mission is a tall order.  The current board members of VMD do have responsibilities within the organization for which they are compensated, acknowledges the VMD Board Special Events Coordinator, Janet Gamache. None, she says is “getting rich” from their efforts, and all work hard to put on events and promote the city.  The Blues and Groove  Weekend, Spring Collectibles and Craft Show, and the Fall Craft Fair, facilitation of the Blueberry Festival – even the Sunday Farmers Market in Evans Park are all organized and operated by Visit Mount Dora™.

Board members feel web-based advertising has definitely offered them, “the most bang for the buck,” according to Gamache, also their ongoing relationship with Cox media – through television and radio advertisements has been widely successful in promoting the town.  Record numbers of patrons at the 2015 Fall Craft Fair, seem to support those assertions.  An organization in transition, Visit Mount Dora™ has struggled with a perception among many downtown merchants, that too much of the money collected is providing paychecks to a few top-level board members, and too little is being directed to advertising Mount Dora. Gamache balks at the suggestion, asking that people contact them directly to see the amount of work the organization does, before they judge.

In Tavares the event schedule focuses on promotion of waterfront events and activities that bolster the city’s economic and branding mission as a Seaplane City and waterfront destination. Eustis, whose tagline is ‘America’s Hometown,’ sees special events as an economic driver, as well. Most events held there are aimed towards bringing Lake County residents to town to appreciate the city’s hometown feel. “The City of Eustis has many unique venues and parks, like the waterfront Ferran Park and our Downtown area, which are very conducive to hosting large public events and festivals. While most large events require City resources, City support for community events, festivals and celebrations is addressed as a priority in the adopted Strategic Plan,” said Economic Development Director Tom Carrino. “We work to build strong relationships and partnerships with event organizers to ensure that each event hosted in the City of Eustis exceeds expectations of both the organizer and the public.”

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Photo Courtesy of Visit Mount Dora

Mount Dora leads the pack with a hectic and ambitious event schedule. While fairs and festivals bring welcome windfalls to downtown, businesses say they cannot survive only on festival crowds – having rents, employees and merchandise costs to carry year-round.  But, many acknowledge, the welcome influx of visitors as the snowbirds return, and the Mount Dora festival and special event season begins every October, is something they look forward to throughout the slower summer months.

In the past decade there has been a 300% increase in the number of special events supported, sponsored, and/or organized within the city.  Coincidentally, it’s also been over 10 years since the city last reviewed statistical data on downtown visitor spending – or performed a market analysis on the economic benefits and/or burdens that special events present.  While some signature events support the community’s identity and bolster its economy, does saying yes to too many events have an ill-effect?  Says City Manager Vice Pastue, “While Mount Dora’s policy is to recover direct costs from the event sponsors, it becomes difficult for personnel to work weekend after weekend as a voluntary assignment.  The second challenge is to avoid festival fatigue with residents and businesses.”

City of Mount Dora’s taxpayers are ponying up approximately $200,000 annually to close streets, provide public employees as support personnel and, in the process, brand the city to throngs of visitors, based upon their festival and/or special event experience.  Is the City, along with its event organizers, targeting the customer base it wants to attract?  How many of the special events are geared toward encouraging residents to enjoy their own downtown?  More importantly, is Mount Dora relinquishing its own ability to brand the city by allowing that duty to be shouldered by other organizations – ones with no accountability to its future?

Beyond those considerations:  Is there a point of saturation beyond which the City of Mount Dora should not go, in adding to its event calendar?  Is more, necessarily better?  Should the City have a measure of the quality or quantity of events offered, or should the ‘Festival City’ welcome all comers?  Are Mount Dora’s festivals an enhancement to the quality of life for residents, or an increasing inconvenience?

Having throngs of visitors on the streets of Mount Dora is a wonderful ‘problem’ to have.  But how to keep crowds consistently engaged in downtown throughout the year is the real challenge that needs to be addressed, in the opinion of many downtown merchants.  Rob English, President of the Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce (who organizes and operates the city’s annual Bicycle Festival) agrees, saying, “I believe that Mount Dora has reached its saturation level for festivals and musical events. Quality over quantity should be our goal, using the analogy that, ‘sometimes less is more.’ I think the city should conduct an extensive market analysis with the ultimate goal being a year-round economic development plan. Our town should be branded as someplace special having the best events, shops, restaurants and eco-friendly activities.”

With a newly seated city council, the time is ripe for Mount Dora to make a concerted effort to review the quality and quantity of events on its calendar. It’s also time for the City to consider if the message the events lays out is consistent with the message citizens and businesses would like to deliver about Mount Dora, as a destination.

A meaningful discussion on the economic impacts of events, and their ability to provide a steady, year-round benefit to downtown – and all of Mount Dora – is due.  Only with the input of local merchants, the City, the Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce, Visit Mount Dora™, and other event organizers, working together will the best answers be brought forward for consideration.

Melissa DeMarco, Editor (editor@mountdoracitizen.com)