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Chalk Festival founder explains relocation

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  • | 4:00 a.m. May 8, 2014
File photo The 2013 Sarasota Chalk Festival, themed "Legacy of Valor," featured 500 artists.
File photo The 2013 Sarasota Chalk Festival, themed "Legacy of Valor," featured 500 artists.
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The Sarasota Chalk Festival is scheduled for Nov. 10 to Nov. 17 this year, but Burns Square streets will not be adorned with artwork as it has been since 2007.

Last month, the Venice City Council approved a special event agreement that makes the city the new host of the Sarasota Chalk Festival. Since its inception, the Chalk Festival has called Burns Square home and drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors to the area, but event founder Denise Kowal said issues between her and the city were too significant to overcome.

Kowal said she began seriously thinking about moving the event to Venice in January or February.

Community and arts leaders from Venice heard about Kowal’s interest and asked her to meet with them. She started evaluating the area to see whether it was capable of hosting the festival, and by the third time she met with the group from Venice, she had made up her mind about pursuing the move.

During the Chalk Festival’s time in the city of Sarasota, the event was often the target of complaints from nearby merchants or property owners. Kowal thinks these disputes received undue attention in the media. She said they didn’t contribute to her decision to move the event, because she thinks they will pop up no matter where it is held.

She believes most Sarasota residents appreciate and enjoy the event. Instead, the festival is now calling Venice home because she believes the Sarasota City Commission wasn’t as accommodating as it should have been, considering the magnitude of the event.

A 2010 Visit Sarasota County study pegged the event’s economic impact at about $3 million. Kowal said attendance has tripled since then, and she estimates the impact is now close to $10 million. Festival organizers also estimated that, between 2010 and 2012, the event generated almost $75,000 for the city's tax base.

In March 2013, commissioners approved a waiver for the event that would negate up to $5,000 in fees, but denied a request for a $10,342 waiver to cover the cost of city police services. Kowal said the approved fee waiver was a drop in the bucket compared to both other expenses and the revenue generated for the city.

“They clearly have not found this to be as much of a benefit to the community as the community has felt,” Kowal said. “There's a big disconnect there.”

Mayor Shannon Snyder said the City Commission found out at the same time as the public that the festival was relocating from the city. He wished Kowal luck in the new location, but disagreed with the notion that the City Commission was unaccommodating to the event.

“When you realize how many neighborhoods were disrupted and the taxpayer money that went into it, I think it’s not a correct statement,” Snyder said. “I think the facts bear out differently.”

Snyder congratulated Kowal on finding a host city more willing to offset the costs of the event, and said he was uninterested in battling back and forth with another city to retain the festival.

Kowal, who lives in Burns Square, said it was a difficult choice to move the festival, but her attention is now focused on Venice. She left the door open for another potential move in the future, but said she planned to give the Venice location at least five years to succeed. Still, in making the move, she’s leaving behind her ideal venue for the event.

“I thought Pineapple Avenue was the best location for it,” Kowal said. “I thought it was perfect.”

2007 — The inaugural Sarasota Chalk Festival is held in Burns Square, with 5,000 people attending.

2010 — 80,000 visitors attend the third iteration of the event, drawing international artists for the first time. A study conducted by Visit Sarasota County estimated the festival’s economic impact at more than $3 million.

2012 — The event expands to 10 days, with an estimated 200,000 attendees. Some Burns Square merchants voice complaints about the festival becoming a disruption to business in the area.

May 2013 — Festival founder Denise Kowal requests an additional fee waiver from the city to cover the cost of police expenses; the City Commission denies her request. Kowal considers moving the event to another location in the city, such as the Rosemary District.

November 2013 — The seventh Sarasota Chalk Festival is held over just six days. After the event, Kowal says she is considering relocating the festival to another location, such as Venice, due to friction with the Sarasota City Commission.

April 2014 — The Venice City Council approves a special event agreement making Venice the host of the 2014 Sarasota Chalk Festival.

Man on the Street
Burns Square merchants and employees were largely disappointed to hear the news
of the chalk festival’s relocation. Below is some feedback from people in the neighborhood.

Lance Stahl
Sarasota Trading
What's your reaction to seeing the chalk festival leave?
I'm kind of sad about it. It was good for business. Everybody has a lot of mixed reviews about it — some people are glad it's gone. Most people are sad.

Alan Howes
Awesome Orchids
Was it a positive thing, having the chalk festival here? Oh yeah — I got a lot of foot traffic, and it was very beneficial for my business to get that exposure at no cost.

Wendy Rucci
Burns Court Cafe
Would you like to have seen the city do more to keep the event? For sure — it's something that's going to support the arts in Sarasota. I don't see why Sarasota as a city wouldn't want to do that.

Contact David Conway at [email protected]



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