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St. Pete’s MLK celebrations receive Elite Event funding

Mark Parker

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A family at the 2023 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dream Big Parade. Photos: City of St. Petersburg.

While St. Petersburg’s MLK Dream Big Weekend does not fill local hotels like the four-day Reggae Rise Up music festival, it will now receive the same tourism funding.  

Pinellas County Commissioners unanimously agreed to waive Elite Event criteria for the city’s celebrations honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The program awards project funding according to an event’s impact on the local tourism economy.

Due to its marketing and economic impact score not meeting program criteria, the Tourist Development Council (TDC) did not include Dream Big Weekend in its five funding tiers.

Commissioner Rene Flowers took umbrage with its exclusion at Tuesday’s meeting. She said the parade is the nation’s largest but would never meet the hotel-stay threshold due to its student focus.

“I’m asking staff and the TDC to please find a way,” Flowers said. “And I’m asking my colleagues to find a way to fund this event – it’s huge.”

Funding for fiscal year 2024’s 34 Elite Events totaled $2.045 million, exceeding the commission’s previously mandated $2 million limit. Flowers said she would not support waiving the funding cap unless the commission included Dream Big Weekend.

However, all six of her colleagues agreed that Advantage Village Academy (AVA), the St. Pete-based event organizer, deserved a special exception. Commissioner Chris Latvala supported the organization’s $75,000 request and asked if officials needed to remove a recommended applicant.

“I think this event is an important one for our county,” said Commissioner Dave Eggers. “It speaks to the culture, which is so important. I think it rises up above just another project analysis.

“There are other projects that didn’t quite make it, but this is different.”

St. Petersburg’s Dream Big Parade, now in its 39th year, is the nation’s longest-running parade honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Brian Lowack, interim director of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, sought the commission’s approval to fund 34 Elite Events in the upcoming fiscal year. The Convention and Visitors Bureau implemented the program, which uses proceeds from the 6% bed tax to subsidize events meeting tourism criteria, in 2012.

The TDC separates recommended applications into four funding categories according to marketing efforts, attendance and the number of hotel stays generated. County officials award $150,000 to Category 1 events that attract at least 50,000 attendees or generate over 15,000 room nights and receive a nationally televised broadcast.

Those include the Valspar Championship golf tournament and the St. Pete Pride festival. Smaller Category 4 events, like First Night St. Petersburg, receive $20,000.

Eggers suggested helping AVA increase marketing efforts, which Flowers noted are already extensive. However, she said many event attendees and participants are local and don’t stay overnight.

Flowers said Historically Black College and University (HBCU) students and bands are the exception. While some stay for the weekend and share rooms, she noted that many schools cannot afford three hotel nights and meals for thousands of attendees and chaperones.

“I’m telling you, we raise money from all of the places,” Flowers added. “The budget is not small, and they’ve scrimped it down as much as they possibly can.”

Despite her fervent pleas for support, Flowers said she didn’t want to “punish” a recommended event. Commission Chair Janet Long said the TDC should discuss permanently increasing the program’s $2 million funding cap.

“God knows in every other category, the numbers have gone up exponentially,” she said. “It’s (Dream Big Weekend) not only geared towards our county, but it’s for the kids. And it helps benefit our young people. That’s kind of where my soft spot is.”

Founded in 2008, AVA began operating the annual MLK Day Parade in 2017. It rebranded the event and incorporated several additional programming aspects.

St. Petersburg’s celebration, now in its 30th year, is the nation’s longest-running MLK Day parade. In addition to the city, Latvala noted that AVA boasts several prominent sponsors and advocates.

Commissioner Charlie Justice, who motioned to include AVA in 2023’s Elite Event program, kicked off the voting again Tuesday. Commissioners unanimously approved temporarily waiving the $2 million limit and program criteria for the MLK Dream Big Weekend.

AVA will receive $75,000 in bed tax funding, the same amount awarded to Category 2 events like Reggae Rise Up and Clearwater Jazz Holiday.

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    Rose Hayes

    August 21, 2023at8:40 pm

    Thank you Commissioner Flowers for fighting fiercely for this venture. You took a great stand and have my support.

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