PLANT CITY — The Florida Strawberry Festival has removed Evelyn and Batista Madonia Sr.’s name and photograph from its agricultural center because the couple failed to fully pay about $1 million for naming rights.
The couple, who filed for bankruptcy protection in March, missed two annual payments they owed for having their names on the 30,000 square-foot arena. Festival President Jim Jeffries said the board took the action reluctantly because the Madonias, once widely known for their generosity, were longtime supporters of the festival.
But festival officials said they couldn’t ignore the couple’s failure to fully pay for the naming rights.
“It reached the time where we had to take action and move in a new direction,” Jeffries said.
Jeffries and festival General Manager Paul Davis wouldn’t say how much the Madonias still owe. The couple made an initial payment for the naming rights but missed payments due this year and last.
On Friday, only the words “Agricultural Show Arena” remained on the front of the building. The couple’s names and a photo of them were gone.
The Madonias’ eldest son, Stephen, said he was disappointed their names had been removed. He said the couple paid a “substantial portion” of the $1 million but didn’t know the exact amount.
“My parents gave and gave and gave” to the festival and charities, he said. “My parents feel like it’s very important to give back to the community and that’s what they did.”
He said his parents, who have been married 56 years, wanted to fully pay the $1 million but couldn’t as the bankruptcy case progressed.
Davis and Jeffries said the festival is looking for a way to honor the couple on the festival grounds. Something else on the grounds might be named for them because they did pay a portion of the naming rights, officials said.
Festival officials say they feel compassion for the couple and their financial difficulties.
“They have had some hard times and we feel bad for them,” Davis said.
The festival is trying to line up a new sponsor for the arena, which is the largest building on its grounds. The arena is the venue for events such as the annual Florida Strawberry Festival queen’s pageant and festival livestock shows.
The Madonias are best known for their ownership of the iconic Red Rose Inn and Suites but they also once owned a vast tomato-growing empire. In recent months thousands of acres of farmland, homes and other assets they owned in Florida and Virginia have been auctioned for a total of $75 million to repay their debts.
A bankruptcy trustee rejected the $2.1 million high bid for the Red Rose and it remains for sale.
The Madonias’ rise to local prominence began in 2003 when they spent about $5 million to buy and renovate an aging Ramada Inn at Interstate 4 and Wheeler Street. Evelyn Madonia added the Southern charm and grace that made it such a part of the community’s fabric. Television commercials featuring the red-haired Evelyn dressed in elegant evening gowns helped spread her fame beyond Plant City.
The hotel closed in May 2012.