BROOKSVILLE - When the last RV rolls out of the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport rally Sunday, it will mark the end of a 16-year partnership that pumped millions into the local economy.
The board of directors of the Southeast Area Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA) voted 46-0 Tuesday morning not to sign a new lease with the airport. Instead, the board announced it has signed a tentative agreement with Sarasota to hold the annual rally at an inside venue.
In the end, it came down to money.
"We just cannot afford to keep putting money in these tents," said Jim Duncan, president of the Southeast Area Family Motor Coach Association. "We need to have permanent structures to put this rally on."
FMCA paid about $70,000 to erect tents for the event this year.
Duncan said he blames the Aviation Authority for not providing a building and for failing to negotiate.
"We kept asking them that's what we needed," Duncan said. "You need to step up to the plate and they never did that."
Duncan said his board wanted to stay in Brooksville and this is no slam against the area merchants who he called hospitable and friendly.
But putting on a rally this size is a business and Sarasota is offering the use of a 500-seat indoor arena for $20,000, Duncan said.
Gary Schraut, chairman of the Aviation Authority, said he did reach out to the FMCA about a long-term solution but was met with resistance.
"It's a two-way street," Schraut said. "No one reached out to us. We reached out to them."
Schraut said the FMCA's request for a permanent structure was untenable because of Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
"It's very difficult for the airport to build permanent facilities on the airport side that are not aviation-related," Schraut said.
Schraut said he will be sorry to see the RVers leave but there's nothing he or his advisory board could do because of the lack of communication from the FMCA board.
Conrad Kleinpeter, an FMCA regional vice president, said it was hoped the county could provide the RVers with a permanent indoor building to hold the annual vendor booths, trade shows and other amenities for the rally.
Instead, participants - who gather from throughout the nation - had to meet in tents, he said.
"We're going to lose $40,000 this year and we have $100,000 in the bank," Kleinpeter said.
The FMCA had already reduced costs as much as possible, he said, by cutting the number of on-site tents and reducing the cost from $120,000 to $70,000.
But it's not enough to salvage the rally, he said.
Kleinpeter said the declining number of RV participants doesn't help.
"We had 3,000 coaches a few years ago," Kleinpeter said. "This year, we had 600. It's just a dollars and cents thing."
Kleinpeter said he got the impression the RVers were no longer welcome here because nobody tried to address their concerns.
"I think these airport people want us out of here," he said.
The annual RV rally is one of the largest tourism events in Hernando County which, during its height, injected up to $10 million into the economy, according to earlier reports from the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce.
But rally organizers have been losing money due to a fall-off in members, the bad economy and the escalating costs of putting on the event.
Sarasota and other counties had been making overtures to FMCA officials about moving the rally to their area.
The county came close to losing the RV rally last year but the FMCA agreed to a one-year lease to see if conditions could be improved at the airport.
The agreement contained several money-saving options, the biggest of which was a reduction in the license fee from an annual flat rate of $6,500 to $4 per motor coach.
There would be no charge for additional coaches should attendance exceed 700, which would provide an annual savings of $3,700 or more over the current agreement. The airport also assumed responsibility for the mowing and maintenance of the rally area, reducing FMCA costs by some $8,000.
But efforts to secure an indoor, permanent facility didn't occur and that proved to be a deal breaker for the FMCA.
Duncan said the board plans to sign a one-year lease with Sarasota. After that, it's up to the board where it will hold the rally. If Hernando County wants to continue to negotiate for future RV rallies, then it will listen, he said.
"We can always come back," Duncan said.