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Having the Best Time

How Venice, Florida, Plans and Hosts Special Events


Venice hosted Revolution3 (REV-3), a nationally based, one-half triathlon that consists of three parts: 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike race, and 13.1-mile foot race.

by Edward Lavallee

Venice, Florida, manages special events with special detail.

Venice, Florida, is located on the state’s southwest coast. Like other Florida coastline communities, it is a tourist destination. A warm winter climate and pristine beaches on the Gulf of Mexico attract thousands of visitors each year. The climate and location also make it an ideal site for special events.

The city’s demographic makeup includes year-round Florida residents, seasonal vacationers, and short-term visitors. In its 90-year history, Venice has grown in population and geography to its present size of 22,000 residents and 16 square miles of land.

A noteworthy demographic feature is that the average age of its residents—68 years—is among the oldest populations in the country.

Another noteworthy geographic feature is that the beaches and business and cultural centers are located on an island that is manmade with the extension of the inter-coastal waterway system, which is a marine navigational channel created to facilitate safe marine vessel travel inland of Florida’s coastline. The island is accessible by three drawbridges.

A diverse mix of full-time and part-time residents creates interesting challenges for the city government. Revenues generated from government user fees are impacted by seasonal variations in the use of public utilities and other public services.

In the appointment of volunteers to serve on local advisory boards and commissions, the city’s policymakers consider this local constituent complexity in an effort to offer fair and broad-based representation and public input into local government decision making.

Volunteers Are an Asset

In a community with diverse public service expectations and where every revenue-generated dollar counts, the city takes stock of its public assets. These include a prolific climate of volunteerism and an opportune locale for special events. In this community, volunteers account for a significant amount of civic achievement.

It is a cultural entity that seems to have grown up with the community. Volunteers are active in homegrown events like craft fairs and local car shows. They are also visible attributes in large-scale special events like nationally based sports activities.

In 2012, Venice executed a three-year contract to annually host Revolution3 (REV-3), a nationally based, one-half triathlon that consists of three parts: 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike race, and 13.1-mile foot race.

The event typically attracts more than 1,000 race participants. REV-3 and events of this type that require the use of miles of public roads would overwhelm many communities. To safely operate the REV-3 on the Venice streets and in public waterways required a trained REV-3 staff and more than 600 local volunteers.

The event organizers, in coordination with city staff, were able to assemble, train, and deploy the necessary volunteer force to support a multitude of event-related tasks, including marshaling traffic, operating water stations, assisting with medical services, and supporting such ancillary activities as a pre-event health expo.

As a result of proper planning, this event was successful. City staff members conduct post-event audits of special events, and this process guides us in assessing the suitability of an event returning in the future.

Three specific issues are examined:

1. Was the event safe and well managed? Did the event and the related patronage create such unhealthy or unsafe conditions in the community as extensive traffic jams, discarded debris or litter, inadequate restroom facilities, and excessive demands on police, fire, and emergency medical services resources?

2. Was the event properly managed financially? Were contractor and subcontractor bills paid and other debts and obligations settled as promised? Were contracted city resources compensated as promised?

3. Was the event beneficial to the community? Did residents appear to enjoy and participate in it? Were there perceived cultural, economic, and educational benefits? Would the public welcome a return event? In Venice’s case, this criteria is often assessed informally and by word-of-mouth from residents to city staff.

Following the three annual events, the city and REV-3 extended the agreement to a fourth year and also discussed the prospects of expanding to a full-length triathlon, meaning a doubling of the event’s scale (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike race, and 26.2-mile foot race).

After assessing four years of the annual event, however, there was consensus that a full-scale triathlon might be too big for the Venice community.

In evaluating the potential impact of a full-scale event, this is what the city considered:

  • Street miles required to accommodate the bike-and-run portion of the event clearly exceed the city’s capacity. Total street miles in Venice approximate 44 miles, including every neighborhood street as well as major arteries.
  • Number of traffic pattern modifications, detours, and blocked street accesses necessary to support a safe bike and running plan would measurably disrupt the community. The planned use of public streets is further complicated by the need for race participants to cross drawbridges during the bike and run portions of the event. The drawbridge openings are regulated by other agencies and can be difficult to coordinate with this type of special event.
  • Number of intersections to be controlled, especially those requiring uniformed police personnel that would place excessive demands on the local police department. The full-scale triathlon is projected to require 12 to 14 hours of total police presence. That time includes managing traffic alterations during event set up, controlling traffic flow during the event, and regulating safe breakdown at the conclusion of the event.

Keeping It Local

Venice hosts and supports a number of recurring local and regional special events, including a competitive BBQ bash, music events, art shows, and local service agency fundraisers. These events are successful due to the strength of volunteer labor.

Established local service clubs and civic organizations have taken it upon themselves to become a presence and help determine the community’s future. They do this by volunteering their time and talents to promote and preserve the city. Here is how the local government publicly acknowledges the positive economic and cultural impact of this volunteerism:

  • Each calendar quarter during a council meeting, the mayor selects and announces a “pillar-of-the-community” that recognizes a resident whose volunteerism has significantly benefitted Venice.
  • For volunteer organizations that support specific local charities, city staff works with them in organizing and permitting fundraisers.
  • The city has established policy to provide financial subsidies to local service clubs and volunteer organizations that are perceived as benefiting the community.
  • The city application for a special events permit requires the applicant to define a plan to use local volunteer services as a means of engaging residents in the events.

Issuing permits for, endorsing, and, in some cases, subsidizing special events that take place on public property implies a duty for the local government to adhere to public health and safety standards and compliance with local codes. The general public also expects Venice to be judicious in awarding contracts and permits for the use of public properties for any activity.

To foster a relationship between the two valuable commodities—local volunteers and special events—in the permit application process, the local government should require the special event applicant to draft a written plan to use local volunteer help.

This is an especially valuable application criteria for events sponsored by out-of-towners as it provides a gateway to local public awareness and support for the event. For local volunteers, there is an opportunity to formulate a working relationship with a visiting event holder.

For prospective future events, there is mutual benefit in the event holder establishing a positive identity with residents. Volunteer labor saves money for special events. Volunteer expertise and local knowledge can impact the perceived success of a visiting special event and influences its chances of returning in the future.

Not all events are appropriate for all communities. Some special events are notoriously successful and generally popular in some communities but can be a poor fit for others. The community is a major player in determining the propriety and value of certain types of events.

Assessing the suitability of a special event for a community can be done both proactively and reactively. In Venice, these are the proactive steps:

  • All applicants must complete a detailed permit application describing the type of event, proposed geographic location, prospective dates and times, special needs like traffic alteration, and needed resources (personnel and materials).
  • The application is reviewed by staff from the departments of planning, police, fire, and public works, followed by a meeting with the applicant to define the city’s minimum staffing requirements.
  • Once agreed upon by the applicant, the application is forwarded to the city manager for approval. All new (first-time) events also require council approval.

The reactive steps include:

  • Staff review of the actual event performance measured against the application projections.
  • Determination if the event was financially successful and if all bills and obligations were settled, including costs due to the city.
  • Assessment of the general public’s perspective of the value, enjoyment, and community benefit.
  • Assessment of the city’s ability to safety and effectively manage the event.

Here are benefits to be gained by a community in attracting and hosting special events:

Economic value. Events can draw visitors who find the community as well as the event attractive, and, as a result, make return visits to patronize local businesses, shops, and restaurants.

Image generator. Certain types of special events become icons for a community—sporting events and arts and craft shows—that find themselves listed on event calendars, in trade journals, and in other publications.

Cultural enrichment. The mere hosting of special events can kindle a local interest in a culture, art, sport, or other activity for residents.

Charitable value. Service clubs, charitable organizations, and nonprofits often use special events as a main source of revenue generation to support their service delivery programs. By hosting and supporting such events, the community is enriched by its charitable participation in these services.

All perceived benefits aside, a local government that considers hosting and supporting a special event, and in particular those events that will occupy segments of public space or temporarily alter normal community life, must carefully weigh value, impact, cost, and complexities of the event.

A suggested protocol for the handling of special events and requests to host them involves:

Using a detailed special events application. The form should require the applicant to disclose proposed dates, time, location(s) of the event; specific needs for public property (e.g., space, amenities, labor, materials); projected patronage (e.g., influx of visitors, traffic impact); and use of vendors for food, alcohol, and commodities.

Disclosure should also include insurance, indemnification of locality, special licenses required (e.g., fireworks display); bond/deposit; cleanup plan; and emergency and contingency plans in case of accident and disaster.

Soliciting staff response. Prior to recommending or issuing a permit, circulate the detailed plan to all affected departments (e.g., police, fire, public works, utilities, engineering, planning, code enforcement) to receive feedback on their projected impact and respective requirements of the event holder.

Establishing a community and event-holder contact list of names. Distribute to staff for use during event.

Requiring attendance. Expect on-site presence by event principals during days and hours of operation of the event.

Conducting a post-event review and determination of success. Among the factors to consider are public health or safety issues, unpaid obligations or unresolved debt, and a determination as to whether the event was generally enjoyed by the residents and benefited the community.

Using local volunteers to support special events planning, operation, and evaluation adds an enhanced value to this unique process. The local government benefits in its recognition of volunteerism as a valuable community asset.

To dignify, support, and sustain volunteerism, these are suggested considerations:

  • Volunteerism is a culture not a program. It is not created overnight.
  • Volunteerism, like other sustainable organisms, has a defined purpose and goals.
  • Volunteers require and merit feedback to support, redirect, and focus energies for common value.
  • Volunteers represent a demographic unique to each community; recognize and use the strengths prevalent in that demographic mix.
  • Volunteers and volunteer groups are most successful when their image, goals, and purpose mesh with community values and mission.

Assessing Impact

As much as Venice values selected special events as benefiting local residents, businesses and the visiting population, it is also clear that some are too large or too complex for a medium-sized community.

When the presence of a special event creates disruption to normal life due to traffic snarls, noise, litter, and general patron influx, the management team must assess the impact on the community’s quality of life. Where the proliferation of special events adversely impacts the community’s cherished sense of peace and ambience, management must be the vanguard for protecting these community virtues.

Conversely, when the opportunity to introduce a special event offers sought-after excitement, healthy forms of athletic competition, cultural enrichment, civic value, and economic benefit, a local government can champion such opportunities on behalf of residents.

Venice has found that the likelihood of special event success can be enhanced with the use of a judicious application review; detailed agreements of responsibility among the participants; appropriate civic involvement using volunteers; and an articulated plan of event implementation, onsite management, and post-event analysis.

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