ST. PETERSBURG — On a cool Saturday morning, Saint Pete Yard Cards owner Katie Mallah sanitized the superhero cutouts in front of her tent in Williams Park. A DJ pumped salsa music in the distance and bubbles flew from a machine in her tent.
Mallah was one of nearly 200 vendors and community organizations to participate in the 8th Localtopia, an annual festival supporting community artists, restaurants and stores organized by Keep Saint Petersburg Local.
Mallah grew up in St. Petersburg and had attended previous Localtopias with her husband and kids. But this year was her first time participating as a vendor – she started a yard signs business to help people celebrate drive-by birthday parties and other milestones during the pandemic. Throughout the morning, people stopped by to take pictures in the superhero and mermaid cutouts by her stand, as well as with the I Heart St. Pete sign she set up.
“We’ve had all ages,” Mallah said.
This year’s event came with a number of changes to adapt to the COVID-19 era. Masks required at all times. Volunteers wandering the festival to monitor social distancing. A designated eating area at the Methodist Church with food and drink consumption prohibited elsewhere. Pets left at home, to discourage strangers interacting with each other and their animals. And a fenced-off, contained space for the festival with temperature checks at each entrance.
It was one of the first large scale public events to take place in St. Petersburg during the pandemic.
“We are trying to actually be the role model and the gold standard on how this is run today,” said Olga Bof, founder and executive director of Keep Saint Petersburg Local.
Localtopia was one of the last large public gatherings before the pandemic started. In 2020, organizers were able to survey non-local attendees and found the event had an economic impact of $4 million from their spending alone. But the event’s reach likely went beyond that, Bof said, as she estimates locals tend to make up about 80 percent of attendees.
Eckerd senior Jayden Taylor has gone to the event all four years of college. But this was her first year as a vendor, where she sold earrings, cards and painted vinyls for her business Radiate Creative.
“I really am proud to be a part of it,” she said. With the pandemic, artists don’t have as many opportunities to sell their art, she said.
Lydia Warren and Jessica Johansson, both 35, have gone to Localtopia every year since it started. They came to support Book + Bottle, a wine bar and bookstore that opened last year just before the pandemic closed shops down. While the event drew a crowd, it wasn’t as packed as last year when it was difficult to get to vendors, they said.
“We still feel safe,” said Johansson, as her 2-year-old son Anders played near a fountain in Williams Park.
If organizers had decided to cancel the event, Gulf Planks owner Darren Crew said he would have understood their decision. But the owner of the local sign-making shop also knew that if the festival continued this year, he would definitely set up shop, having participated in three prior Localtopias to sell decor celebrating unique Pinellas County locations.
“Our business is all about the love of St. Pete and Pinellas County and all the interesting and unique places that St. Pete has,” he said. “And that really fits with exactly what Localtopia’s here for. It’s all about our local area, loving St. Pete.”
The free event runs until 5 p.m. Saturday.