Oxnard Cutting Ties to Fruit Festival : Events: Initially, the city will continue providing funds. But a nonprofit corporation will run the strawberry gala, which 'has come of age.'

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After nurturing the California Strawberry Festival from its inception 13 years ago to its status as the community's signature event, the city has turned it over to the private sector.

Without comment, the City Council on Tuesday approved an agreement that creates a nonprofit corporation to run the festival and provides a $600,000 renewable line of credit for the next nine years to help pay for it.

"The event has come of age," said Bill Garlock, festival manager.

Freed from bureaucratic constraints, the aim is to let the festival seek corporate backing that will be more reliable than the whims of municipal budgeting.

At the same time, organizers say they will strive to avoid over-commercialization and continue to rely on the hundreds of community volunteers and nonprofit groups that form the backbone of the festival.

Most festival-goers very likely won't notice that the change has occurred, Garlock said.

"Privatization is probably a misnomer as far as [the festival] is concerned because there's not going to be a whole lot of difference in how this thing is structured," he said. "I don't think somebody's going to walk up there who has been going for the past 10 years and say, 'There's something different here.' "

One of the most well-known festivals in the county, the two-day event held on the third weekend in May annually draws about 70,000 people. More than half the attendees come from outside the county, filling hotel rooms and injecting money into the economy.

Initially, the city will provide the bulk of the festival's $600,000 budget, just as it always has. And the festival will continue to reimburse that money out of profits.

However, because the city has pledged to make the loan every year through 2004, the festival will be freed from the degree of financial uncertainty that always accompanies the council's annual budget deliberations.

That should bolster the festival's ability to negotiate potentially lucrative multiyear corporate sponsorships and ultimately strengthen the event, Garlock said.

"We never knew from one year to another whether we had a budget or not," he said. "The perception of stability will be translated into increased resources for the event."

More than 20 corporate sponsors provide in excess of $200,000 annually in cash and trade to the festival, Garlock said.

The eventual intention is to wean the festival from its reliance on public money, said Councilman Tom Holden, a member of the transition committee formed about 18 months ago to oversee privatization.

Holden said the festival should be able to stash away enough profits to become self-supporting by the time the agreement with the city runs out.

"We haven't removed ourselves from backing the festival, we've just put the plans into place that allows them to become independent," Holden said. "It basically gets bureaucracy out of the way and lets organizations put on programs for less money than we can."

However, organizers are determined to ensure the festival doesn't forsake its community roots.

"We don't want to turn it into a monster, we still want to keep it a festival atmosphere," said Don De Armond, festival chairman. "The nonprofit base will not change, it's the reason we started this festival."

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