BROOKSVILLE - Brooksville restaurant owner Mary Smith said there was always one thing she could count on when the dreary and colder days of winter set: The arrival of scores of RV owners.
With the annual RV rally only about 10 minutes away at the airport, handfuls of "regulars" would drive into town and patronize her Mykonos II on Broad Street.
Over 16 years, these people developed friendships with staff and other RVers and it was truly a family affair, she said.
That's why Smith was disheartened when she heard the Southeast Florida Motor Coach Association board of directors voted Tuesday to move the rally to Sarasota starting next year.
"I'm genuinely going to miss them," Smith said. "We always had so much fun when they came."
It hurts economically and it hurts because emotional attachments are severed, she said.
"We got a little burst (economically) in the middle of winter time that was always appreciated," Smith said. "It's kind of sad. It really is. It's something that we all looked forward to."
Although the annual RV rally attendance suffered in recent years, it was still a boon for many area merchants, who benefitted from the participants driving for groceries, gas, food and other amenities, said Pat Crowley, president of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce. The Walmart on U.S. 41 was a popular stop for RVers who bought gasoline there and groceries, she said.
"I honestly believe that some of our merchants are going to be hurt by this," Crowley said.
Les Jinkens, co-owner of Brooksville's long-standing Red Mule Pub, delivered 200 pounds of free peanuts to the RVers site each year.
Jinkens said the rally pull-out will not only hurt his business but all merchants in the immediate vicinity because when the RVers are here, business spikes.
"It's by far the biggest two weeks that we have," he said.
Jinkens said that while he will miss the rally he understands the FMCA plight. They've been losing money, attendance is down and it probably makes more sense to seek a different venue where their needs are provided.
"I'm going to miss them and they know it," he said. "I'm getting ready to go out (to the airport) and say goodbye."
County Administrator Len Sossamon said he plans to meet Friday with Jim Duncan, president of the Southeast Area Family Motor Coach Association, in a last-ditch attempt to get the FMCA to change its mind and stay here.
But Duncan and other FMCA officials told Hernando Today that the group already has a tentative agreement with Sarasota to move it to that county's fairgrounds, where there is a 500-seat arena with bathrooms, water, electricity and other amenities.
The high cost of erecting temporary tents proved to be the deciding issue, Duncan said. The FMCA attempted to save money by cutting the costs of tents from $120,000 to $70,000. But it wasn't enough, especially since the number of rally participants had dwindled down to 600 from a high of 3,000 about five years ago.
He blamed county officials for not negotiating with the FMCA to resolve the matter.
But Sossamon and Aviation Authority member Gary Schraut said they did reach out to Duncan and the FMCA and efforts to bring the two sides together were unsuccessful.
For example, Sossamon said he scheduled a meeting with Duncan last Monday, one day before the FMCA directors' vote, and the latter canceled at the last minute.
Sparse crowds on opening day
Meanwhile, attendance was noticeably down on opening day Thursday. The rain and cold temperatures forced most people to either stay inside their RVs or crowd into the big vendor tent, where puddles had formed on the makeshift floor.
Debra Hayes, an FMCA volunteer who was exhibiting motor coach clothing, hoped better weather this weekend would boost crowds. The event ends Sunday.
Hayes said the consensus from customers Thursday was that they were looking forward to holding next year's rally in Sarasota because of better facilities.
"Everybody's wanting to move," Hayes said.
Logan and Andie Mathis, in from Lavonia, Ga., said they will take this weather over the snow and ice in their home state. But they were disheartened by the sparse crowds.
"It really is (sad)," Logan Mathis said. "All the volunteers worked so hard."
He understands the FMCA's decision to move is based on economics but still feels sorry for area merchants who will lose customers from the rally.
"This town has done so much to support the FMCA," Mathis said. "It's going to hurt the town here and we all feel badly when that happens."
But whatever happens, Aviation Authority member Gary Schraut said it is a testament to the county that it was able to keep the RV rally here for 16 years..
"We're an airport, first and foremost," Schraut said. "The RV rally was always a temporary event. The board of county commissioners worked hard to keep it going but the FMCA is having an attendance problem."
Schraut said it is difficult for Hernando County to invest $2 million or $3 million on a permanent building when there is no guarantee from the FMCA that they would sign a long-term lease to stay here or that the rally would even continue.
"The airport is (financially) stable," Schraut said. "We didn't accomplish that by recklessly spending money."
Schraut holds out hope that perhaps the FMCA will change its mind and stay in Brooksville. He cites the return of the winter dog show at Florida Classic Park east of Brooksville as an example.
The dog show was cancelled last year because of a legal dispute and there was talk of it moving to Marion County.
But after negotiations, the show organizers returned to Hernando County this year.
"Maybe this is an opportunity for us to work harder," Schraut said. "The entire community should be grateful."