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Annual Cortez fishing festival on the move

CORTEZ -- The signature attraction that boosts the population of this tiny fishing village fivefold for a weekend every winter is on the move.

It’s not that the Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival can travel far in a village that boasts fewer than 10 blocks and 2.2 square miles of land.

But the 29-year-old event, which attracted about 25,000 revelers over two days last year, has been relocated four blocks to the east after a former host, A.P. Bell Fish Co. owner Karen Bell, pulled her support.

The new festival grounds will begin at the Florida Maritime Museum, 4415 119th St. W., and stretch south to the parking lot shared by Cortez Bait and Seafood, Bayside Banquet Hall and Cortez Kitchen.

“In a way, it’s a little scary because it’s a new area,” said John Stevely, a board member for Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, which runs the event. “But it should highlight some of the historic aspects of the village.”

The festival -- in a nod to the move, this year’s theme is “Here You Are” -- will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Feb. 19 and 20. Admission is $2; kids younger than 12 are admitted free. It will feature seafood, live entertainment and nautical arts and crafts displays.

Stevely said the new location is actually the old location. The area hosted the first two festivals before organizers moved it west to 123rd Street West, where it has remained for the past 26 years.

Because 119th Street West is shorter than 123rd Street West, organizers have heard concerns that attendees will be cramped in tight quarters. But Stevely is confident the new setup will be a hit.

“We always have a problem with space,” Stevely said. “I think it’ll work fine.”

The festival is a fundraiser for the 95-acre FISH Preserve, which is just east of the new festival site and will host parking as in years past. Parking also will be provided on the streets of Cortez and at shuttle locations on Coquina Beach and the 59th Street plaza in west Bradenton.

The change in scenery became necessary this past summer when Bell, a FISH board member, informed the board that she would no longer allow the festival to be held at her bayfront property.

Bell’s decision stemmed from a dispute about absentee ballots cast in an election for FISH officers. Former Manatee County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann defeated Bell in a race for treasurer, but Bell objected to last-minute absentee ballots cast by new FISH members who had not yet paid dues.

Lifelong Manatee County resident Lisa Varano didn’t notice the location change when she posted “Can’t wait!” earlier this week on the fishing festival’s Facebook page.

Varano, who was raised on Anna Maria Island, said she has missed “maybe three” of the previous 28 festivals.

“Believe me, I would have shown up on the other side,” said Varano, 51, a manager at Diplomat Resort on Longboat Key. “I’ll certainly check it out. Sometimes change is good, sometimes it’s not.”

She said her niece from Guilford, Conn., coordinates her family’s spring break to coincide with the fishing festival.

It worked out this year, and the niece and her two children will be heading south to enjoy the event.

“I like the fact it’s on the water ... and, of course, the food and the fact I get to see friends I haven’t seen all year long,” Varano said.

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