Ybor merchants engage in spirited discussion about annual Guavaween celebration

Ybor merchants are extremely sensitive to the perception that Ybor City is a violent area.  Tampa Police Department statistics say that crime is down dramatically over the past six years, but they worry that perception is reality.

That's what made the comments of Dale Swope, the co-owner of Tre Amici, sound so discordant.   Swope said that Guavaween should be viewed as an investment in Ybor, and one of the few opportunities to bring in new people to the district.  But then he said, "We're all aware that the demographic of our customers is plummeting."  Alluding to negative media coverage, he said, "We hate the crap about what Tribune says about it, but look, in the bottom of your heart, you know it's true. " At that point, four or five people in the audience  verbally took issue with Swope, but he carried on.  "I've lived here for 50 something years... and I can assure you that it's deteriorated. "

Don Barco, the owner of King Corona Cigars said flatly he'd like to see the event "go away" but realizes that's probably not going to happen.   Acknowledging the negative perceptions of Ybor, Barco said that Guavaween plays a part of that.  Like others, he thinks that there should be not be undue attention paid to one night out of the year.

Ybor entrepreneur Alan Kahana, who is serving on a new advisory committee reviewing Guavaween, said he's in favor of making substantial changes to the event, including creating a "naughty atmostphere" which he and others say has gone away from the annual bacchanal.

That advisory committee is made up of a mix of Chamber and non-Chamber officials.  They'll meet a couple of more times before April, then come before the Ybor Chamber of Commerce Board with recommendations about this year's festival.

Even before last year's disappointing Guavaween celebration in Ybor City, there was grumbling amongst many of the bar and restaurant owners that the annual Halloween celebration had gone astray in recent years.  Those feelings intensified after one of the lowest attended Guavaweens ever last October, leading the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce (who receives the majority of their funding from admission proceeds to the event) to host a discussion Wednesday night on how to improve the street party in the future.

Chamber President Tom Keating began the meeting, attended by approximately 60 merchants, residents and Tampa Police Department officials, by saying that media reports about how poorly attended the party was last year were highly exaggerated. Keating said attendance was down 9% from the year before (to around 15,000) , and that in the past five years the attendance hasn't come close to the 80,000 or so who did come to the event back in the 1990's.

But the merchants had plenty to say, with much of the criticism revolving around the $17  gate admission, which many said was prohibitively expensive.  Critics also said it was a mistake to host the event on Halloween itself.  There was also unhappiness that the entertainment district became a gated community, as it were, by 2p.m. that day.  Anybody who wanted to come shop or eat by that time had to pay to get inside the district.

And  there was considerable back and forth about having the event gated at all.

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