By: Homer Hirt
Immediate Past President, RiverWay South, Apalachicola-Choctawhatchee
One of the legends of West Florida relates that Mr. Ed Ball, who ruled the vast holdings of St. Joe Company, was approached by some California businessmen. They had a need for land and St. Joe controlled a million acres in West Florida. After listening as they related their plan for a tourist destination center, he, in measured tones, said: “I don’t hold much with carnival rides”.
So Walt Disney’s folks went to Orlando and soon Disneyworld came, with its thrill rides and comic book characters and castles and palaces.
And West Florida was left with rivers and streams and first magnitude springs, complete with flora and fauna, and great forests and beaches, and history that precedes the Spanish invasion.
Judy Randall, President of Randall Travel Services, the premier tourism company of the southeastern United States, at the March 2010 Jackson County Chamber of Commerce’s Power Breakfast called Interstate 10 “A river of money”.
She told of the millions of vehicles that moved annually on the east-west route and described the passengers: sales representatives, families, truck drivers, some going on by, some staying at roadside hotels. And she told the attendees what the visitors were looking for.
They are eager to have a home style meal in a nice restaurant, IF they knew where to find one.
Some would like to visit parks and attractions that were not as “hokey” as the theme parks, IF they could only knew about them.
Many would like mementos, handcrafted by locals, that would be conversation pieces back home in Indiana or Kansas or Texas or California IF they were able to find them.
Ms. Randall’s message inspired a group from the six riparian counties of the Apalachicola, later joined by Washington and Holmes counties, to seek a way to tell the story of what is here. The organization, RiverWay South Apalachicola/Choctawhatchee (RWSAC) with funds from member counties through bed taxes, matched by a grant from the Governor’s office, was able to employ a professional tourism manager who provided wayfaring directions, tourism gap analyses, inventories, a website, advertising and many other assists.
This year RWSAC will continue. As Florida promotes its five hundredth anniversary of Spanish exploration, RWSAC will take part. A summit will give access to the best and brightest speakers in rural tourism. A closer tie to Visit Florida will put the area in the forefront of national and international publicity efforts. There will be a special emphasis on agricultural tourism.
We who have grown up in this part of Florida know what we have: family oriented beaches, magnificent rivers, national and state forests and parks, first magnitude springs, hiking and canoeing trails, history and cultural events and natural resources. Now is the time to let those folks that travel the “River of Money” know about it.