Zombicon's billing issues just won't die

10:49 AM, Jan 22, 2013   |    comments
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Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press) -- Zombicon might not return to downtown Fort Myers this year. If it's going to stay, it's going to need some help... both from city leaders and the community.

"We are confident we are going to have a Zombicon," organizer Janet DeMarco said. "But for us to have it in the city of Fort Myers, we need to have some positive commitment."

The annual zombie gathering, which brought about 30,000 people to downtown Fort Myers in October, is typically the highest-grossing night of the year for area bars and restaurants. But three months after the event, Zombicon owes the city $15,256, and future events might be in jeopardy.

"We are going to give it to the collection agencies, and they are going to go after it," Saeed Kazemi, city public works director said. "But the bottom line is, if they don't pay, they are not going to get a permit next year."

Zombicon paid the city a $624 deposit to cover the expense of closing downtown streets but hasn't paid anything since the October event, said Dawn Fellows, permit coordinator for the Fort Myers engineering department. The city gave Zombicon 30 days from the event to pay, meaning organizers are about two months late.

The bill includes cleanup ($6,000), police presence ($5,460), and renting a city stage ($119), Fellows said.

DeMarco said event staff is doing its best to pay the city. Part of the problem is the city turned down Zombicon's application last year for a $50,000 special event grant, a decision DeMarco called a huge mistake. To save money in 2012, the city only awarded grants to events that received money in 2011. Zombicon did not qualify in 2011 because it was not yet an official non-profit.

On Tuesday, city officials will meet to review the way it awards those grants.

Zombicon organizers also tried something new in October - they put on a zombie convention at the Harborside Event Center, which featured zombie vendors, entertainment and panels by stars from the movie "Day of the Dead" and TV show "The Walking Dead." In previous years, there was no convention, and the event consisted of tourists and locals in zombie makeup partying on downtown streets. With the new convention, expenses skyrocketed from about $40,000 to about $160,000.

Fewer than half as many people as expected bought tickets for the zombie convention. DeMarco said she was hoping for at least 4,000 people. Instead, no more than 1,500 showed up.

"We truly thought more people would have come to our convention from our home town," DeMarco said. "We had out-of-towners come, but it seems the local people were more interested in the free party."

DeMarco was also hoping party goers would donate money to the cause, but not many did.

But Zombicon was successful in its charity drives, DeMarco said. The event brought in 5,016 pounds of food for the Harry Chapin Food Bank and 314 units of blood and 40 bone marrow donors for Lee Memorial Health System.

Even if Zombicon is given a permit this year, without a grant from the city and donations from the local community, it may have to leave the area, DeMarco said.

"We are definitely looking at our options - we have to," she said. "We've definitely been approached by other cities and other areas."

Ryan Walker, bar manager of The Red Rock Saloon on First Street, said Zombicon is their busiest day of the year .

"I would be very upset if they don't have it this year," he said. "Not only is it lucrative for all the businesses down here - it's fun."

Kazemi said the city last spoke with Zombicon organizers more than a month ago, when organizers said they were still trying to get money from their sponsors and would pay off the debt. Now organizers are not returning city calls, he said.

DeMarco said the city hasn't tried to call. She wouldn't say how much money Zombicon raised in October, explaining organizers are still counting revenue and collecting money.

Zombicon can still receive up to $15,000 from the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, which approved a grant to reimburse the event for out-of-area advertising, according to Nancy MacPhee, program manager for product development at the bureau. DeMarco said organizers are putting together final reports for the bureau, and will receive the reimbursement once the reports are in.

Kevin Offerman, president of City Tavern on Bay Street, said his business doubled during Zombicon. It's a good event, Offerman said, and he helped organizers last year with a $600 sponsorship.

"I appreciate the hard work that everybody puts into Zombicon," he said, "And I hope that it works out to where we can have Zombicon in the future."

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