The Great American Cooter Festival as we know it is coming to a close.
The City of Inverness, which has hosted the Cooter Festival the last weekend of October since 2004, has decided to forego the freebie event and replace it with a three-day country music festival with paid admission.
They’re looking to call it Cooter Country Stampede or something like that.
Truthfully, I’m bummed.
It’s not that the Cooter Festival holds some special emotional significance, because it doesn’t. That’s the point.
The Cooter Festival was never about anything in particular. But it was the perfect showcase for Inverness because of what it represented: Families hanging out in the city park on a fall weekend, eating junk food, listening to music and cheering on their favorites in the cooter races.
It was lazy, indifferent. Cooter was “Seinfeld” — a festival about nothing.
We were all a little dumbfounded when then-City Manager Frank DiGiovanni hatched (ha!) this cooter idea in 2004. A festival to celebrate the turtle?
Then “The Daily Show” got involved and turned the Great American Cooter Festival into a household name. Ed Helms came to town, made good-natured fun of everybody (including my friend, the late Winston Perry), and the Cooter Festival was off and running.
But what was it exactly?
Over the years, a lot of things. Kids’ games. Music. Crafts. Food. Cooter races. And, of course, the popular Sunny Cooter, pictured with yours truly circa 2014.
Early on it had a “Dukes of Hazzard” feel, with the guy who played Cooter making a guest appearance. Former Councilman Ken Hinkle would wander about in his all-white Boss Hogg suit.
Some years there were barbecue contests. And a triathlon. One year a band of Southern rockers jammed on “Free Bird” for an hour.
It’s been on the Courthouse Square and at Liberty Park. Music from numerous tribute bands entertained in the evenings.
The city once tried Whispering Pines Park, hoping for a camping music festival. Didn’t really take.
The cooter races — man, that was some cool entertainment. Something about 8-year-olds urging small turtles across the finish line. You don’t think those kids told their friends about it at school the next week?
This was the first time I’d heard anyone from the city having any concerns about the festival’s attendance, which was generally regarded around 15,000 in its heyday. The last few years it’s been tougher, what with the city rebuilding Liberty Park, adding the Depot District, followed by COVID-19.
Somewhere in the shuffle, the Cooter Festival lost its charm to city officials who are looking for ways to put the Depot District more into the spotlight. The Cooter Festival requires a lot of time, money and effort on the city’s part with little, if any, return.
So promoter Steve Pritchard, of the Crystal River Jam days at Rock Crusher Canyon, and the city agreed to ditch the free family event for a three-day country music festival, where tickets will be around $30 for one day or $65 for three days, according to what I read in the Chronicle.
Here’s what I say about that:
The Great American Cooter Festival had no rhyme, it had no reason. It was just a fun, goofy weekend right before Halloween.
I’m sure this new shindig will be entertaining as heck, but it won’t be the Cooter Festival. Great setting for a music festival for sure, but let’s be honest: In a blind taste test, will we be able to tell the difference between it and any other music event?
The Great American Cooter Festival was three days of silliness in a town that encouraged such behavior. I always considered the Cooter Festival as a feather in the city’s cap because it DIDN’T go over the top. I mean…c’mon….cooter races. Who does that?
I’m not trying to beat up the city here. Inverness is well run with City Manager Eric Williams, his staff, and the city council. I trust they know what they’re doing. I’m just not thrilled, that’s all.
DiGiovanni brought the Cooter Festival to Inverness, a cable TV show made it famous, and we never looked at it as anything more than a fun time.
Boss Hogg, I’m going to miss you.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.