In a 3-2 split vote during their Tuesday, August 20 meeting, Gulfport City Council consented to the three-day Gulfport Grand Prix Boat Show and Race immediately after lauding and unanimously approving the city’s new 2019-2020 events calendar that features shorter one-day celebrations.
The third-annual Formula One powerboat races will be held Friday through Sunday on March 27 to 29 in 2020 and has been advertised on the event’s website prior to final council approval. Joe Guenther of Gulfport is the manager of Grandprix of Gulfport, LLC and, along with his wife Maddy, owns O’Maddy’s Bar & Grill and Botiki, businesses located in the city’s Waterfront Redevelopment District near Boca Ciega Bay.
According to the event’s website, proceeds benefit the MY (Michael J. Yakes) Foundation, a local non-profit that is also owned by the Guenthers.
“I’m on the fence on this,” said Vice Mayor Paul Ray. “I talked with a lot of the businesses in town and basically, they said the [race] weekend was net zero. They didn’t see any increase in revenues but they didn’t see any decrease.”
Ray also said he spoke with Scott Linde of the Gulfport Merchants Chamber (GMC) with regard to the questionnaire the business group sent out to their membership about the impact of the race.
“They pretty much had exactly the same results that I found,” said Ray.
Councilmember Michael Fridovich asked about costs for the city, profits for the race organization and what kind of money goes to the charity.
“In the history of it, we’ve raised over $10,000 for the MY Foundation,” said Joe Guenther. “We are not profitable, yet. We hope that one day it would be a profitable thing for us but as of yet it’s not.”
City Manager Jim O’Reilly said the city’s support costs are approximately $3,000 per day for trash, barricades and traffic control. The promoters pay for all other expenses.
Joe Guenther said, “Both of my businesses had record days” during the race weekends. “This event is good for Gulfport. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do something that would affect my businesses in a derogatory way.”
Guenther said if people didn’t respond to the GMC survey, they wouldn’t be counted.
“In the 10 years that I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen an event that has divided this city like this particular event has,” said Karen Love. “When you started talking about events and changing up some things up in terms of scope, scale, not having road closures and not having multiple-day events, I’m just surprised that this is back on there. If each one of you thinks back to the things that you’ve heard about this event over the last few years and listen to what your constituents have told you, we don’t want this event. This event is probably the worst event that I’ve ever seen for our businesses, residents and marine life. It’s not what small little Gulfport is about.”
Albert Risemberg of Gulfport echoed Love’s position.
“It’s like our city gets hijacked,” he said. “What I do now since we’ve been doing it, that’s when I plan to go away. And, I’m not the only person. Basically, we’ve lost our city for three days.”
Mayor Sam Henderson acknowledged that in the past, he has worked for Joe Guenther for almost two years. “I’ve known both of you [Guenthers] for a long time.”
Henderson also said, “Because of the process of doing the boat race for the past three years, the amount of money that you have spent trying to do the right thing in terms of the marine life. Every hoop you’ve had to jump through, you guys have done it.”
The mayor said he was the reason Resolution 2019-54 was being discussed at the meeting.
“The scale of it. Because of the number of people that have taken issue with the impact it’s got to the city in those three days, to me it’s purely about the size,” said Henderson. “It’s not about how you manage it. You’ve made improvements every year. This was my concern for year one too.
“I feel like it’s not only too big for the city and too much of an impact on residents for a three-day weekend, but also I don’t know if it has the potential to be big enough to make the kind of money you need to make your money back particularly when you’re putting more and more toward the MY Foundation doing it. It’s been a headache for me with the number of people that have been real unhappy with it. In the end, that’s the reason we’re talking about it today.”
Fridovich noted that the boat races are “something out of the box, it is different ” from previous events that city has done. “It brings in people that do not normally come to Gulfport. We need to bring new people in because not enough people live in Gulfport to do everything we need. I do agree that three days for a small town is one issue.”
Councilmember Dan Liedtke said, “As far as risk to marine life, if I’m a manatee, the safest place to be is probably in Boca Ciega Bay on boat race weekend. The other days of the year, boats are just flying by out there.”
Councilmember Christine Brown agreed.
A spokesperson for the race promoter said that 30 people come in for the marine life from around the state of Florida. These people are put up in hotel rooms and have their weekend paid for to look out for manatees, the sea grass and any wildlife.
“I do work the event as a member of the Citizens Emergency Response Team,” said Brown. “I hear a lot of great things. I do hear some bad things too. But, I support the MY Foundation and I want to believe that you’re doing a good job.”
Regarding the boat race resolution, Henderson and Ray voted no while Brown, Liedtke and Fridovich voted yes.
Ray said after the meeting that what bothered him the most and caused him to vote no was, “Response from the community. Many people downtown just simply don’t want to see these multi-day events” that include road closures.
New Events Calendar Approved
In related business, council unanimously approved the 2019-2020 calendar for city sponsored, co-sponsored and community-based events.
According to a city memorandum regarding Resolution 2019-53, “City of Gulfport sponsored/supported events and impact to the community is forefront in implementing. The city desires that the events be free, open to the public, family friendly, have minimal impact on residents, and support a local community-based organization.”
The memo also states that “all event sponsors and promoters must fully comply with the provisions of the city’s Human Rights Ordinance,” which is Chapter 26 – Civil Rights.
“There are some changes,” said O’Reilly. “The Springfest is now a one-day event. Holiday Hoopla has been moved to a more market style event to not necessitate road closures. We no longer have a non-profit partner related to the Junk in the Trunk (JITT) so now it will be more of a trash amnesty day partnering with Pinellas County’s hazardous materials drop off.
“I would like to recognize the efforts of the GMC in the fact they have worked with us to try to scale some of these events back. One thing is, a stronger focus of events that support local businesses.”
JITT has been renamed the City of Gulfport/Pinellas County Chemical Drop Off Event.
For a full list of approved events for 2019-2020, see legistarweb-production.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/attachment/pdf/413968/Exhibit_A_-_FY_2019-2020_Special_Events.pdf.
Mayor Acknowledges Courtesy
In his informational report at the end of the meeting, Henderson emphasized one topic saying, “I think I can speak for all of us up here.
“I appreciate all the folks who come to these meetings and sit through all the things that they don’t care about in order to take their opportunity to speak to the ones that they do. The ones who are civil and thoughtful and make a point to be informed really make a difference. We’re human beings too and sometimes, social media can wear you out seeing the misinformation that floats around.
“So, when people come in and treat each other and us with respect, and we get to do the same and have a dialogue, this whole thing works so much better. Thanks to all of you present and at home [watching the meeting on television] who do that.”
Spirit of Gulfport Award for Sally Douglas