CLEARWATER — Now that the daily Sunsets at Pier 60 have been so successful, the city is withdrawing the grants that support the daily tourist art and performance spectacle.
On Sept. 19, the City Council approved a five-year agreement that will begin phasing out the $23,879 grant the city provides for the twilight celebration. The grant will be reduced by $6,000 a year until the subsidy is phased out in 2022-2023. The organization that runs the celebration, Sunsets at Pier 60 Society, Inc., will receive $18,000 in 2019-2020; $12,000 in 2020-2021, and so on.
“The festival can now fully support and handle all costs of the festival based upon its success, so we are reducing the city subsidy to zero over the term of the new agreement,” said Kevin Dunbar, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
The not-for-profit Sunsets of Pier 60 Daily Festival made its debut on March 17, 1995, according the festival’s website. The festival originally ran from Thursday evening through Monday evening until June 1998, when it became an every-evening affair.
“With the new agreement, the city’s intent is to ‘sunset’ the festival’s funding,” said Lisa Chandler, who along with her husband Steve Chandler and others helps manage the festival. “We have been extremely fortunate to have had the city’s support and financial assistance over the years. It has been an integral part of assisting us with the festival’s growth.”
She said the evening event — which celebrates its 25th anniversary in March — will continue to be innovative.
“I'm confident we will explore creative ideas and ways to ensure its continued success,” Chandler said.
Under the new contract, the city will continue to maintain the bathrooms, beach and lawn in the park at the foot of the Clearwater Memorial Causeway.
According to local historians, the 609-foot extension of the Clearwater Municipal Pier, with its iconic bait shop, was opened in June 1962. The pier is lined with jewelry designers, photographers, sculptors, painters, and other artists who sit behind tables displaying their wares.
The Chandlers, who once owned the Beach Diner on Clearwater Beach, answered a 1995 city bid for tourist concepts for Pier 60 park. Though the couple competed against larger companies with slicker presentations, their ideas won the Pier 60 concessions contract.
Over the last two-plus decades, the Clearwater mother of four and her affable husband have helped reshape the image of the beach into a year-round, family friendly travel spot. They organized the Pier 60 brand through several business ventures, including Pier 60 Concessions, the annual Sugar Sands sand sculpture festival (which raises money for local schools); free weekly Sunset Cinemas, and the nightly sunset celebration. The idea of featuring jugglers, artisans, and other entertainment with the glorious setting sun as a backdrop is reminiscent of the Sunset Celebration in Key West.
Chandler credits local businesses for the creation of the sunset program.
“Gerri Raymond worked as the director of the beach visitor welcome center located in the old Memorial Civic Center,” she said. “In an effort to address the need of providing visitors with more entertainment options during the evening hours, Gerri assembled a group of local business owners to create a nightly sunset festival, patterned after Key West’s Mallory Square Sunset Celebration.”
The Chandlers do not make money from the sunset activities, she said. She lists the family’s businesses as the Beach Diner, which closed in 1998, and Pier 60 Concessions, for which they won the city bid in 1995. Pier 60 Concessions opened in 1996 with food, beverage, retail and umbrella/cabana rentals. She also lists the Barefoot Beach House, for which the couple was awarded the bid in 2005. The umbrellas/cabana rental business also sells food and beverages.
And now, the time for the city’s financial support for the nightly festival is waning — though the sunset celebrations will continue.
“I believe the decision was made as a result of the daily festival’s success and its ability to be self-supportive,” Lisa Chandler said. “Mallory Square and the Sunsets at Pier 60 Daily Festival are the only two year-round festivals that take place in Florida.”