VENICE, Fla. (WFLA) – Organizers of the Chalk Festival have faced many challenges with the well-attended event over the years.
In 2018, red tide forced them to postpone the event and in 2020 and 2021, the pandemic canceled the events. As the nonprofit was finishing up final preparations for the return of its full-scale event at the fairgrounds at the Venice Municipal Airport this month, they got some bad news.
Venice’s assistant city manager sent an email to founding creative director Denise Kowal on Oct. 7, just three weeks before the festival was supposed to begin.
The email reads as follows:
“It is with much regret that I inform you the Venice Airport festival grounds will be unavailable for special event purposes until further notice, and will be unable to accommodate your upcoming event. Due to Hurricane Ian, the area is being utilized by FPL as a staging area and is currently inaccessible. Additionally, the Airport will need to fully assess and repair the festival ground area after FPL vacates. Finally, City staff at the Airport, Public Works, Police and Fire Departments are not able to support the event due to very limited staff resources as we focus on storm recovery and public safety.“
As of Oct. 18, city officials told 8 On Your Side FPL has not formally relinquished the property. The utility company still had a guard at the gate, some trucks coming and going and equipment at the site as of Tuesday. The festival grounds remain unavailable for special event purposes until further notice.
“There’s lots of times I think if I had a little bit of space I would probably break down and cry, but I don’t really have time for that. I have to back up an incredibly large event,” said Kowal.
Over the last few weeks, the team has been cancelling flights and hotel accommodations and contacting vendors to alert them of the last minute change.
“Financially, this is a huge blow. I haven’t had time to really even take into account exactly what that all means. We buy airline tickets months and months in advance, so there’s almost $100,000 of airline tickets, so the first thing you do is try to figure out what is our impact, what are the things we can’t get refunds on, what are the things that are gonna sit there that we may be able to use at another date,” said the organizer. “The economic impact is in the hundreds of thousands, and on the region, it is going to be in the millions.”
Around 20 artists came into town weeks early to help with set up ahead of the event, because of its large scale. Now, the nonprofit has shifted course and is now quickly planning a smaller-scale event in Downtown Sarasota.
“At the time when it was all coming down and it was happening, we really had to make decisions quickly. We are just dealing with too much money to not make decisions quickly. So we are going to put the [focal] part of our festival and the traditional pavement artists, we were going to put that on hold until April and try to move forward with a lot of our 3-D artists. There will be about 25 total international, I think 50 artists total participating and we are gonna be moving forward with that,” said Kowal.
Venice business owners say the the cancellation of the municipal airport event is unfortunate.
“We don’t have very many events like that in Venice so it is a shame that it is not gonna be here this year. We have been looking forward to it,” said Justin Pachota, president of Venice Pier Group. “It is just a great boom for tourism in the city. We obviously see a huge influx an our restaurants. It makes our staff excited because they’ve got more people, new faces and definitely some added revenue.”
The Sarasota event will feature a series of smaller events including sidewalk paintings, a sidewalk chalk contest and fundraiser and a zombie exhibition. The events will be in or around the Burns Square area in Downtown Sarasota. There will be no formal admission fees, however the nonprofit is asking for donations to support their future events.
“Every single penny that we raise goes to paying for the airline tickets, the hotel rooms for the artists, the artist supplies, the amenities that we need at the event, the storage like our warehouses, the cost of our website and social media, advertising. Every single penny that we have goes strictly to just creating this event,” said Kowal.
Events begin Oct. 28. You can find more details online.