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New cycle begins for Thunder by the Bay

Event may have found permanent home in Lakewood Ranch

Blue Oyster Cult guitarist Kasim Sulton performs in front of a huge crowd at Thunder by the Bay in Lakewood Ranch.
Blue Oyster Cult guitarist Kasim Sulton performs in front of a huge crowd at Thunder by the Bay in Lakewood Ranch.
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Singer Bobby Friss walked to the front of the stage and screamed at the crowd in his best rock-star voice.

"How are you doing, Sarasota!"

Only Friss, the front man for the Bobby Friss Band, was playing Jan. 8 in the Thunder by the Bay event at the Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch.

For the 18 previous years, the Suncoast Charities for Children held its Thunder by the Bay event in Sarasota, so Friss, whose high-energy, classic rock performance was a highlight of the two-day festival, could be forgiven if he was a bit confused.

It might take some time for people to connect Thunder by the Bay with Lakewood Ranch, but the 19th festival was a step in the right direction, according to Suncoast Executive Director Lucy Nicandri. In fact, Nicandri is hoping Schroeder-Manatee Ranch was so pleased they can remain in Lakewood Ranch for the long term.

"I've already sent an email to Rex Jensen (SMR's president and CEO) asking if he can accommodate us," Nicandri said. "I think we have found a home."

Jensen is in favor of continuing the relationship. 

"We were glad to be able to help Suncoast Charities and Thunder By The Bay stage another successful event," Jensen said. "Our Premier Sports Campus provided almost endless room for them to expand the festival for participants, spectators and vendors alike. The event was well-attended, despite some weather challenges, and everyone enjoyed themselves in a family-friendly, orderly nature. We got great feedback from event organizers as well as festival-goers, and hope that we'll be able to collaborate again."

Nicandri estimated 10,000 people attended the event on Sunday, which included a grand finale concert by Blue Oyster Cult. Saturday's attendance was way down due to the rainy, cold weather.

"I was extremely happy on Sunday," said Nicandri, the event's founder. "The tent was filled, and in front of the stage was filled. Somebody reminded me we had more people at that time (late Sunday afternoon) than we did last year in Sarasota."

In September, the Suncoast Charities for Children board of directors voted to move from Sarasota, which was building opposition to the event. Nicandri scrambled to form a schedule of events for their new site at Premier.

"Really, we had four months to plan," she said. "So we knew we probably were going to be down a little for the charity. We had new expenses, like tents, fences, generators for lighting and barricades. But we are going to come out positive for the charity, and we will take a bigger step forward next year. People are going to tell others that 'Hey, it was good.'"

Nicandri said Suncoast Charities for Children would release the financial and attendance figures in about a month.

Sarasota resident Joe Collins didn't need to wait to put his stamp of approval on the event's new site.

"You can crank it up here," Collins said about Lakewood Ranch. "Nobody tells you to turn it down."

Premier also offered the event and its patrons plenty of room. The Ives Brothers Wall of Death required the assembling of a motordrome that, according to Nicandri, wasn't possible in downtown Sarasota. "We've never got to work at home," said Cody Ives, who along with his brother, Kyle, grew up in Sarasota but never had performed before at Thunder by the Bay. "This area (Lakewood Ranch) has so much room so these guys can ride their bikes. Downtown was red light after red light. This event will be a big thing here."

Other main attractions, such as the Cycle Circus Live jumpers, were offered for the first time.

"In Sarasota, there was no room there," said Cycle Circus Live jumper Jason Rowe. "We do tons of bike rallies, and this feels more like a rally here in Lakewood Ranch."

Ruskin's Louis Hay, who was pulling away from the event on his motorcycle Sunday, said he couldn't have been more impressed.

"I've been to a lot of motorcycle events in my lifetime, and I would rate this No. 1 or No. 2," he said. "I think you need a couple of things to be successful. The community has to support it, and I think you get that feeling here. You also need the participants to act appropriately here, and they did. The Sheriff's Office here did a nice job. This event is not too big, or too small. If they do it next year, I'll be back."

Complaints involved the lack of clean restrooms and that most of the food selections were "carnival" style. Those who attended the event in the past were used to hopping from one restaurant or bar to another. Some said they had a hard time finding Premier because of poor signage.

Nicandri said she welcomes and reacts to feedback because the event had changed many times over the years in an attempt to get better.

"We got through the challenges," Nicandri said. "We got through the fear of the unknown. We made up for Saturday's rain on Sunday with that crowd. 

"After 18 years, the event was almost on auto pilot. With the venue now being held in wide open space, we had room for a circus tent, tents for our VIP area. We could present demonstrations and our bike parking was better. It was a whole, new footprint."


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