Airboat Tour Highlights Glades Ecological, Historical Tourist Lures

Sunny, warm, perfect “Chamber of Commerce weather” greeted a wide-ranging group of people poised in positions to help bring a tourism ripple effect to the Glades last Thursday as the City of Belle Glade and the Lake Okeechobee Regional Economic Alliance of Palm Beach County hosted an airboat tour of the Torry Island waters along Lake Okeechobee’s southern shore.

City Manager Lomax Harrelle was the master of ceremonies for a luncheon featuring barbecued pork and all the fixin’s for over a dozen guests that preceded an engrossing talk about the long history of the area, which is rich as its soil, between the morning and afternoon airboat tours with six scheduled passengers apiece. The two-hour-long, very informative ride became a mobile classroom captained by Mike Challancin, who runs the Eagle Nest Airboat Tours charter out of the Belle Glade Marina on the island.

At Monday’s City Commission meeting, Mr. Harrelle reported that he and most participants thought the field trip was a resounding success.

According to Lake Okeechobee Regional Economic Alliance board member Chris Radentz, the boat ride was set up as a result of a program of “Tourism Talks” that LORE has been bringing to various stakeholders on Palm Beach County’s “other coast” as part of the alliance’s effort to bolster attention to and awareness of the Glades region’s considerable economic lures, multiple recreational assets and status as a near-pristine ecological cog in the county.

But it’s been a well-hidden cog, as Christian Davenport, who works as the county planning division’s historic preservation officer/archaeologist, pointed out to participants during his presentation at lunch. Starting out by asking what the largest ecological feature in Palm Beach County was, he evinced the correct answer — the lake, of course — and then said: “Here’s quite a thought: So on Palm Beach County’s coast, there are five ecology centers, from Boca to Juno. One every eight miles. How many are involved with the largest ecological feature in the county? Zero. None. I’ve been saying for about the last eight years that there needs to be an ecology interpretive center somewhere out around the lake, whether it’s Pahokee, South Bay or Belle Glade. There should be one here. Tourists come here!”

On the topic nearest to his heart, he was blunt: “I’m always pushing for ecological and historical interpretation out amongst the Glades. People have been living out here longer than what the pyramids have stood! The oldest evidence we have actually comes not far from this location, and it’s a bunch of very large spear heads which are 10,000 years old, and those are the oldest finds in the entire county.”

Mr. Davenport went on into great detail during his 20-minute spiel on the region’s history, leaving very little time to discuss the economics of it all, but then again, numbers can be boring. His tales about characters and commerce in the Glades were fascinating by contrast. He encapsulized his own excitement about prospects for ecological and historical tourism by pointing out: “In 2006, most of you already know, Lake O went into a drought, and it lasted until 2009. There were three known archaeological sites within the lake prior to that. At the end of it, we had identified 33 new archaeological sites, spanning about 3,000 years of history. Plus, [there are] tons and tons of shipwrecks, forgotten hotels, forgotten history. What an incredible role south Lake Okeechobee, this area, played in the development of all of South Florida!”

The Sun/Chris Felker
The Treehouse is a unique gathering spot built and maintained by the Glades Airboat & Buggy Association in the extreme southeastern area of Lake Okeechobee. Much of the time there’s dry ground around it where the grills (partially submerged here) are put to good use for picnic meals and parties, but not this year with the lake level at around 17 feet.

After his talk, the half-dozen afternoon participants headed for the dock, where Mr. Challancin wasted no time getting into his part of the program. During the noisy but pleasant airboat ride (the passengers wore provided ear mufflers), he stopped and cut the engine multiple times to point out the many agricultural, biological, ecological, environmental, geological and man-made features that can be seen in even a brief boat-by tour along southern Lake Okeechobee’s shores and the three islands near Belle Glade that were indelibly connected to its fortunes over the past century.

The participants included Teri Mitze, an aide to State Senator Joseph Abruzzo (D-25th District); Shereena Coleman of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County; Christy Andreon of the Palm Beach County Film Commission; Eric Royal of LORE and the Royal Companies; Regina Bohlen of the Pahokee Chamber of Commerce; Dorothy Block, curator of the Lawrence E. Will Museum in Belle Glade; Stacey Copeland of the Florida Sugar Cane League; Don Kolodz of Discover the Palm Beaches (DTPB); Phyllis Mann of the film commission; and Radentz.

Mr. Kolodz is a senior vice president of DTPB, the county’s official tourism marketing corporation that augments the efforts of the Tourism Development Council (TDC). He explained that his agency is diving into the task of exposing the “well-kept secret” that is the Glades region.

“We’re out here today to really talk about a Community Tourism Action Plan. We will focus on the three cities here to develop a microcosm, if you will, of the master plan,” which DTPB and the TDC are shaping now.

He cited a few mind-boggling figures: Tourism is the “second-largest driver of the economy” in Palm Beach County, bringing around $7.2 billion (with a B) worth of economic value into the county, or roughly 12 percent of its gross domestic product, and nearly 7 million visitors to the county. But, said Mr. Kolodz, tourism revenues in the Glades region are currently minuscule. “it’s a very small percentage, and my perception that the Glades region is a well-kept secret, that people really don’t know about it. And it’s witnessed by [the fact that of] over 300 partners that engage with DTPB, right now we have zero partners from this region.”

He and most of the other participants are out to radically change that situation, with the Nov. 2 tour being just a start.