The debut of Williston’s Christmas Village on Dec. 7 will cost the town peanuts — literally.
The success of Williston’s annual Central Florida Peanut Festival on Oct. 5 is funding a new holiday attraction, according to Carolyn Ten Broek, the Williston Chamber of Commerce executive director and organizer of the Central Florida Peanut Festival. Turnout for the peanut festival provided $9,000 in profits, making free attendance possible for the city’s first Christmas Village. The village, themed Williston Wonderland, will feature holiday traditions like hot chocolate, candy canes, face painting and more.
This year’s peanut festival was the largest in the town’s 31-year history, with 140 vendors in the half-mile space in downtown Williston and more than 8,000 attendees for the one-day event. In 1989, when the festival first began, it had only 25 vendors. The festival’s success inspired the chamber’s Christmas events committee chairman, Michael Langston, to do something different from years past, Ten Broek said.
Aside from membership dues that account for roughly 25% of the chamber’s funding, the festival makes up the other 75% of funding for the chamber’s operations and events, including the Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet, the Starving Artists’ Showcase, the Williston Christmas parade, Light Up Williston and more.
The chamber intends to keep this year’s village a small affair with only 15 to 20 vendors and expand it next year if the community enjoys it, Ten Broek said. Vendors are being asked by the chamber not to sell anything but give away items in honor of the holiday season.
Although the majority of the chamber’s budget for events like the Christmas parade and Christmas Village come from the peanut festival, the bulk of the festival’s proceeds don’t go toward the special events the chamber puts on. Ten Broek said every spare dime of the chamber’s budget goes toward paying off a large debt from an event 18 years ago.
In 2001, the chamber hosted an event that brought aircraft in from across the nation, called Wings Over Williston. After the event and an unsecured bank loan, the chamber incurred a debt of $135,000.
“For the last 18 years, every board of directors since has tried to whittle away at that debt,” Ten Broek said. “For several years, the chamber could only pay the interest on the loan, and therefore, it never went down.”
When Ten Broek became the Williston Chamber of Commerce’s executive director in January 2017, the debt exceeded $55,000. As of last week, the chamber’s Wings Over Williston debt balance was $21,000. The funds from the peanut festival allowed the chamber to pay off $34,000 in three years.
The chamber hopes the Christmas Village will not cause any expenses with the help of corporate sponsors.
Though the festival is integral to the chamber’s funding, it’s about more than the money.
“The profitability from the peanut festival is not relevant to why it’s done,” Ten Broek said. “While it serves as the chamber’s only fundraiser, it is done to showcase our city and to celebrate the peanut farmer and his harvest – the reasons it was started 31 years ago.”
Ten Broek said events like the peanut festival and Christmas parade are integral to Williston’s community.
“[The peanut festival] is the biggest event of the year in this town,” said Kayla Martin, a festival volunteer and Williston resident of seven years. “It wouldn’t be Williston without it.”
According to Laura Fowler Goss, the executive director of the Florida Peanut Federation, the festival’s impact goes beyond Levy County.
“Levy County was a founding peanuts community in the state, so this festival really is significant to the region,” Goss said. “The festival takes place right at the end of the region’s peanut harvest, so it is almost like a huge party celebrating the end of the season and all of their hard work.”