This in an op-ed piece originally published in the Sanford Herald on August 23, 2023, discussing friction between the business community and the City of Sanford elected officials regarding the hosting of large-scale events within the downtown entertainment district.
The recent decision made last Friday by Hollerbach’s German Restaurant to forego their annual Oktoberfest in the City of Sanford, followed mere minutes later by Sanford Main Street’s decision to cancel their large annual holiday event Jingle Jam, immediately sent shockwaves across social media. These reverberations continued over the weekend in various mediums, with public sentiment ranging from shock to anger with not a small amount of sadness. As a Seminole County resident who has split my residency since 2006 between Sanford and neighboring Lake Mary, I have seen firsthand Sanford grow and blossom into an envied event destination.
Over the last decade professionally, I have been fortunate enough to serve on the Board of Directors for the Sanford Chamber of Commerce, as a member of the Sanford Planning and Zoning Commission, own and operate several Sanford-based businesses, and currently sit on the Sanford Main St. board. Over the past decade personally, I have been fortunate enough to wear many hats on behalf of the City of Sanford, as I have been honored to emcee large political events, give an annual Memorial Day speech, attend and speak at countless City Commission meetings, and write economic development pieces promoting and cheerleading the massive growth the city has seen.
This has all given me a unique and personal perspective regarding the revitalization and development boom in Sanford. Energy and growth downtown and the events held in the entertainment district are what persuaded me to move my business to Sanford, and to continue opening more. I am far from unique. Countless business and residents have been drawn to Sanford to be part of the vibrant, eclectic, event-driven culture that permeates the downtown entertainment district. Recent transitions within the city have changed this direction, and it seems to many locals that Sanford is moving away from what makes it the thriving locale that attracts crowds, money, and tax revenue.
The press releases from Hollerbach’s, Sanford Main Street, and public social media posts made by board members have, to varying degrees, cited an inability to meet the normal standard for events, rising costs, and “mounting fatigue caused by the ever-increasing regulations” passed by city government as reasons for the cancellations. There have been numerous changes to policies for special events since Mayor Art Woodruff took office. These include capping the time events can last until at 10:00PM in order to combat chronic noise complaints coming from a vocal minority of residents that live in or around the entertainment district, limiting the amount and frequency of permissible road closures, curtailment of event footprints, and relocating successful events to what the organizers consider less desirable locations in the downtown area. Other events, such as the very popular Sanford Food Truck Fiesta, have been forced to alter their days and times of operation away from “peak” times either to gain approval from the city or avoid undue scrutiny and blowback.
The inability to hold Oktoberfest and Jingle Jim foreshadows more events soon to follow suit. For example, within hours of the Oktoberfest and Jingle Jam press releases, Sanford Karts & Kegs announced they “will not be going through the (needed) permitting process due to the climate at city hall.” Losing events is but the first domino to fall in what may be a prelude to a massive drawback for Sanford. Many local business owners are concerned their livelihoods are next, as fewer events, especially the large annual festivities that draw huge crowds, strikes at their core. Small businesses, vendors, and artists survive on this foot traffic. This also deeply effects charities and non-profits who are the beneficiaries for many of these events. The Ladies 327, a Sanford-based non-profit with over 3000 group members, posted on a community page within hours of these event cancellations, calling it “huge blow” and citing how “losing the funds we raise during these two events is critical to our budget and how we as a non-profit are able to help the community and other organizations in need.” Specifically, their annual “Cops for Christmas” event works with the Sanford Police Department to provide shopping trips for children and families that would not be otherwise able.
Thomas Dillon, a long-time bar manager at Hollerbach’s who recently relocated, chimed in on one of the many social media posts upset at the economic spillover the cancellations will have. “Virtually every business downtown is independent. No chains at all. This hits real people who live in real homes often within walking distance. An entertainment district without events is going to wither or the spaces will be taken over by chains that can absorb the cost of opening losses, unlike your neighbors,” says Dillon. Locals fear a domino effect, where potential business closures may lead to urban blight, lower tax revenues, and a compromised city budget hurting Sanford’s ability to provide services and upkeep. Other sectors, such as real estate, also may feel the crunch of the event reduction, as AirBnB rentals in the Historic District depend on being able to meet capacity to survive, now a less likely outcome now investors.
Christina Hollerbach, the CEO of Hollerbach’s and Dustin Giortz, a board member and chairman of special events for Sanford Main Street, both criticized City Hall. While Hollerbach’s press release announcing the cancellation carefully avoided laying blame directly on city hall, citing Hollerbach’s desire to bring their events to neighboring cities, Hollerbach intimated to me that a lack of support from the city was a key factor. “We are re-evaluating our business model to seek out cities that are welcoming and willing to invest in our events,” she noted, intimating that Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte is holding efforts back. “Our city is thriving due primarily to the efforts of the private sector. I look forward to having a City Manager who can match our energy in the public sector,” stated Hollerbach. “This decision is the result of years of attempting to collaborate and find compromise for growth, however, we are tired of fighting to pay to make the city look good.”
Giortz shared the Main Street announcement and posted on his social media page that “until we have the necessary backing of the city, we are prepared to adjust our business strategy. The solution lies in our commissioners and them choosing a City Manager that aligns with the vision of its residents. We want officials to support and amplify our vision. While the majority of city representatives stand in solidarity with us, a faction of the commission, and the mayor, seem intent on impeding our collective pursuit of growth.”
Local event planner and businessman Mike Smith, the man behind creations such as Sofas And Suds and The Current Seafood Counter, was likewise critical of the city, stating “The City of Sanford, through listening to a few squeaky wheels and making it much more difficult to put on events, is the driving force behind (event cancellations).” Smith also opined that “With all that there is to work on in our town, why is discouraging popular events (at the request of a handful of locals) so high up on the to-do list? These events, put on and paid for by local businesses, is the bulk of Sanford’s marketing efforts and have been a big part of this town’s new-found vibrancy.” Both Sanford Mayor Art Woodruff and District 1 City Commissioner Sheena Britton responded to Smith’s social media post. Woodruff’s response cited that the most recent change that affects fees is the increased pay for fire and police that raised the cost of off-duty pay for police required at events, and noted many people advocated for these raises. This is factually true, as the raises and increased pay raised event costs, but this in and of itself is not the reason for the cancellations, and his comment left readers and Sanford citizens wondering why they can’t have both adequately staffed and funded services AND events.
Locals also questioned Woodruff on his Mayor page as to what events the city does and does not give money to and the rationale for this, opining that the city shows favoritism as to the ‘type’ of preferred events with their purse. For example, Sanford annually gives city money to the St Johns River Art Festival. This is an event that closes down 1st Street for three days, and where downtown restaurants and businesses are not asked to participate in any food or drink vending. Outside vendors block access to local Sanford businesses. Closing the street the night before for set up hurts restaurants and bars on 1st St an additional days beyond the long weekend festival. Although active on the post, Woodruff has not responded to these particular comments.
Commissioner Britton’s comments on Smith’s post drew both ridicule and frustration from readers, as she posted, deleted, and then reposted a response that in parts expressed her frustration at elected officials being blamed for the increasing difficulties, patted herself on her own back for being the one commissioner who advocates for a “vibrant and inclusive Sanford,” and jabbed at Smith for expecting a quid-pro-quo “personal favor” by lending her support for events, as Smith has supported her personally in the past. Putting aside the perhaps ill-advised immediate social media response by Sanford’s District 1 commissioner, we can focus on her actions.
Commissioner Britton has made comments on the record during commission meetings which appear anti-event and to go against event organizers. In one such example which seems absurd when taken at face value, Britton states that events held on the newly installed brick streetscapes are bad because foot traffic from crowds attending events causes the bricks undue wear and tear. In my non-professional opinion I would blame the constant vehicle traffic and large delivery trucks rolling over the brick-lined street for any wear and tear far more than the sandals and tennis shoes of happy shoppers and festival attendees spending money downtown. In fairness, it is hard for the event organizer to be confronted with such a response seemingly made to grasp at any possible straw that paints them in a negative light. According to Smith’s post, Britton also fielded and made issue of a complaint of a city-installed flower bed being stepped on during the most recent Pints & Paws festival downtown, an event that raised over $115,000.00 for local pet rescues.
Of course, Sanford’s leadership is not solely to blame for the event cancellations. Cost increases, especially for insurance and liability, are something all of us in Central Florida are experiencing. That said, City Hall itself is divided, with certain officials openly questioning the overall lack of leadership and proactiveness which may have set in motion a dangerous series of dominoes. Should enough dominoes fall, a critical juncture may be reached where small and locally owned businesses with lower margins are forced to close to be inevitably replaced with larger chains, where storefronts turn vacant and urban blight creeps back in, and where home values fall and citizens are left wanting for city services a strapped city budget cannot afford. People will look back and wonder how a prosperous and thriving community beloved for its events, energy, and growth and a district that is the envy of Central Florida collapsed. Here is where our leaders need to exercise foresight. Here is where the City of Sanford either pivots, embraces growth and change, and embraces the net positives of the entertainment district in Historic Downtown Sanford, or perhaps this revitalized city sees its growth wither and die on the vine.