Blueberry Festival a great success, but won’t be in downtown Brooksville again

1946 Beer, Wine & Small Plates

BROOKSVILLE — On the surface, the Brooksville Blueberry Festival was a great success, bringing thousands of people to the downtown area and raising a lot of money for nonprofits.

Past events have created a lot of good feelings in town and determination that next year’s event will be bigger, better and help more organizations.

But while organizer John Lee said the Blueberry Festival will be in Brooksville next year, it won’t be downtown.

Lee confirmed that he has received offensive and threatening text messages in the aftermath of a blow-up over the sale of alcohol and access to another business. He’s the owner of the Coney Island Drive-Inn. Lee began organizing the festival in 2018, and after stopping for COVID, it resumed in 2022.

According to Brooksville Main Street’s Facebook page, 24 nonprofits got help from this year’s event, the event generated $26,000 in tax revenue and $400,000 in revenue was generated for local businesses.

The issue that caused trouble was that barricades were set up to keep a Brooksville Main Street beer garden in a cordoned-off area of downtown. Brooksville Main Street holds a temporary alcohol permit from the state that allows it to sell alcohol for charitable purposes. 

The organization sold tickets, and stations that dispensed the beer were set up within the beer garden so that other charities could collect tips for their causes, including Brew Good, Do Good, affiliated with Marker 48; the Silo Project, affiliated with Florida Cracker; and other groups such as Marine veterans and the YMCA.

Jennifer Rey, the director of Brooksville Main Street, said the situation led to “much ado about a barricade.” 

She spoke at the Brooksville City Council meeting on May 1.

She said 1946 Beer, Wine & Small Plates, an establishment outside the footprint where Brooksville Main Street’s liquor license applied, felt the barricades for the beer tent made it appear that people couldn’t get to that business. 1946 was selling alcohol on its premises, Rey said in an email, but Blueberry Festival patrons were walking off-site with the alcohol into the event footprint of the festival.

A complaint was filed, but not with the knowledge or consent of Brooksville Main Street, she said in the email.

On Sunday, April 30, the last day of the festival, an opening was made in the barricade to improve access to 1946.

It all unleashed a battle that has been fought on Facebook.

Jason Canals, manager of 1946 Wine, Beer and Small Plates, said he and his business partner met with Lee a few weeks before the festival about the relocation of the beer tent in front of their business, and moving some other events.

“We asked him about what was going on in our parking lot, as last year he had vendors set up in our parking lot, which we were unaware of,” Canals said. “He said, ‘You guys can do whatever you want in your parking lot.’”

They were going to have a tent, too, and didn’t want issues with the nonprofit tent. Canals said Lee told him it was OK and there wouldn’t be any competition.

The night before the festival, Canals saw barricades at the business and soon it was fully barricaded. That was a surprise, he said.

“There was just a little bit of an opening over there by the courthouse where you could get into our business, and then Saturday morning that was completely barricaded off,” he said.

Canals moved the barricades out of the way, he said, and then the police were called, an incident report was filed, and he refused to move the barricades back.

He said the problem wasn’t with Brooksville Main Street but with Lee.

Canals said Lee got “very nasty” and started to target “our families online.”

He said maybe his supporters attacked Lee online, but it was not 1946’s doing and they don’t condone that behavior.

In addition, Canals said, the incident report Lee filed with the state was closed with no violation.

“He was trying to cause damage to our business by saying we were in the wrong there,” Canals said.

At a recent Brooksville City Council meeting, Mayor Blake Bell tried to clear the air.

“There was a lot of rumors out there, a lot of misinformation,” he said. “I heard some crazy things over the weekend. First of all, I can’t stress enough how enjoyable the Blueberry Festival was, both on Saturday and Sunday. The vendors were pleased, there was a record turnout.”

Bell tried to clarify some things. The city does not own Brooksville Main Street, he said, and the council had nothing to do with decisions that were made.

Canals said he wanted the discussion and topic put on a future City Council agenda so things could be clarified.

Bell resisted more talk on the issue from the council. Canals said he was disappointed.

“I’m not sure that it’s necessary for the next agenda to discuss it because I am told that the Blueberry Festival will not happen in downtown Brooksville again,” Bell said. “They have decided to go in a different direction.”

This story has been updated to correct two errors.