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Monday, May 21, 2018
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Gasparilla Music Festival faces growth test in third year

On the second floor of 518 N. Tampa St., a downtown building occupied mostly by commercial real estate brokers in suits, two bearded guys in band tees and shorts sat clicking away on laptops in an office the size of a dorm room.

They were soon joined by two women who propped computers on their knees and began quietly clicking away too. Nearby, a wall with a giant, dry-erase board was filled to its edges with incomprehensible lists and numbers.

It was days before Gasparilla Music Festival at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and Kiley Gardens, and apparently there was still plenty of work to be done at the festival’s modest headquarters ­— a space they’d secured by trading tickets with those real estate brokers.

The eclectic music festival has been a smash success so far, growing from a surprisingly robust 6,500 attendees at the inaugural festival in 2012, to a near-capacity crowd of close to 10,000 people in 2013.

Now the bearded men, Gasparilla Music Festival board president Phil Benito, 37, and executive director Ty Rodriguez, 41, are preparing for yet another growth spurt. The festival gets expanded over two full days for the first time this weekend. The Flaming Lips headline Saturday, Trombone Shorty headlines Sunday.

“Hopefully, people wake up on Sunday and say ‘OK, man, I’m gonna go.’ Because as we know, in Tampa, everything is kind of a one-day deal. For Gasparilla, everyone loses it for one day, but there’s not too many events that are great that go on for two days in Tampa.”

There’s pressure, but they’ve been dealing with high-pressure situations since the beginning.

The 2012 festival was a scramble. First, there was the lineup, which still wasn’t set with only two weeks to go before the festival. The last band was booked 24 hours before the gates opened, said Benito, who runs concert promotion company Brokenmold, and books all the talent for GMF.

When the day finally arrived, hundreds of people breached the fences. With only 60 volunteers to fill 200 volunteer spots, there wasn’t enough staff to do anything but watch those people sneak in and hope they at least paid for beer. The few volunteers who did show up were given extra food tickets and were “basically guilted” into not leaving, Rodriguez said laughing.

“To be honest, there were times that first year I thought I was going to hate music the rest of my life,” he said. “But it’s kind of like giving birth, once it’s all over you forget all about how painful it was. ... Thousands of people showed up. We would have been happy with two.”

“We were all kind of shocked but pleasantly surprised with the turnout and the reception,” Benito added.

The festival is a runaway success, with total revenue of more than $430,000 in 2013 according to IRS records, but nobody’s getting rich. The festival is incorporated as a 503c nonprofit organization. There are 13 board members, none of whom take a salary. Rodriguez is the lone paid employee.

“We’re all people who really have a love for music,” Benito said. “From the start we wanted the event to be a long-term sustainable community event. We felt that establishing it as a nonprofit made the most sense. ... Our goal was to make a Tampa-centric event. We wanted a big music festival downtown. We saw a void.”

Much of the credit, they say, goes to the people who donated money to get the project off the ground back when it was little more than an idea.

“We had almost nothing to show them. We couldn’t even tell them who was playing. The only thing we had was that plan behind you,” Benito said, pointing to a framed map of the festival grounds propped against a wall.

“We would throw these house parties, and (former board member) Annette (Saldana) would set up the donation table right by the front door and leave zero space for people to get by. There was no maybe; you were either going to tell her no, or write a check,” Rodriguez said.

In the end, 83 people donated $1,000, a group now referred to as the Ring of Fire.

“I don’t think that happens if it wasn’t music. Music binds people to this in a way that is different from other nonprofits,” Rodriguez said.

The festival aims to give back through its Recycled Tunes program, in which it refurbishes donated instruments and then donates them back to community schools that need them.

Part of the festival’s appeal is that it offers more than just music. From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on both days, the children’s program with arts, crafts and games, makes for an enjoyable family experience. Some parents will have a babysitter pick their kids up before staying to enjoy the evening headliners, Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez, one of the owners of the popular new Seminole Heights restaurant, Rooster & the Till, is particularly proud of the festival’s drool-worthy food lineup, which features other Seminole Heights dining giants The Refinery, Ella’s Folk Art Cafe and The Independent. He said his biggest push this year was to get more Tampa-centric foods into the mix, so Pipo’s will be serving paella, Seabreeze Trolley Cafe will serve deviled crab and Alessi Bakery will have desserts.

Columbia Restaurant president Richard Gonzmart’s new place, Ulele, won’t open in Tampa Heights until later this spring, but the restaurant will be serving food and previewing its house-made beers at the fest.

“It’s a who’s who when you walk down that row. This is NOT what these restaurants do. Some of these places do one event all year, and it’s GMF. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but Taste of Tampa Bay and some of the other food fests like that, I think they wish they had the lineup we have,” Rodriguez said.

As for the future of the festival, Benito hopes it will start to draw people from around the U.S.

“Right now we don’t advertise a whole lot nationally, but with people seeing the Gasparila Music Fest on these bands schedules year after year, we’re slowly cutting our niche. Ideally, we’d like to have 50 percent of the crowd traveling in, buying hotel rooms and spending money downtown. We want an economic impact.”

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