Thursday, August 21, 2008

No $ponsorships = Cancelled Festival

No barbecue this year as economy dumps Ham Jam
But organizers are planning to hold the festival again in 2009.


The latest casualty of Florida's slumping economy apparently is the First Coast Ham Jam, the annual barbecue contest and country music festival that celebrated its 20th anniversary in Clay County in 2007.

The event Web site, typically full of schedules and photos of scheduled entertainers, now says only that there will not be a Ham Jam this year.

"Due to lack of sponsorship for 2008 and the current economy, the 2008 First Coast Ham Jam has been canceled. We will be back in 2009," it said.

Clay County spokesman Jaclyn Slaybaugh confirmed the cancellation.

Longtime organizer Ronnie Munsey could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for the Reynolds Park Yacht Center in Green Cove Springs, where the event was held the last three years, referred inquiries to Munsey.

Leigh Ann Rassler, spokeswoman for the Clay County Chamber of Commerce, said the cancellation would have some economic impact, at least from the loss of gas, restaurant and other revenue that would have been spent by out-of-town vendors and visitors and the many cooking teams from across the southeast who participated.

She said Eve Szymanski, the chamber's Director of Tourism and Film Development, likely had detailed economic impact information from previous Ham Jams, but was out of town.

The First Coast Ham Jam was proclaimed the state's "Official Pork BBQ Cooking Contest" by the Legislature and was sanctioned by Memphis in May, one of the largest and most prestigious of the barbecue competitions. A Memphis in May representative could not be reached about its current sanction status.

The Ham Jam has struggled in recent years, relocating three times and having attendance drop because of bad weather and scheduling conflicts with Jacksonville events.

The contest was held on a rural Middleburg site until 2002, when zoning and other issues forced a move to St. Johns County, then Duval County, then back to Clay in 2005. Almost 8,000 people attended the 2007 event, up from about 3,000 the year before but a far cry from the estimated 40,000 people that showed up in the Ham Jam's heydays in Middleburg.

Although the Web site cited lack of sponsorship and the economy for the 2008 cancellation, other area barbecue cookoffs are still going strong, despite economic conditions, said Walt Loftin, president of the Florida Barbecue Association, which also sanctions such events.

"Actually we've grown this year. There are several contests that are having more than the usual number of [cooking] teams," he said.

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