BELLE GLADE — A large crowd of regional luminaries and ordinary people whose local livelihoods are the stars of a new South Florida PBS “On the Town” episode gathered at the Dolly Hand Cultural Arts Center on Wednesday evening, March 28, to preview the latest installment of the show, which highlights many of the Glades’ attractions.
The audience included multiple city commissioners and staff members from the Glades Tri-Cities, Palm Beach County leaders, executives and staff, businesspeople, chamber of commerce officials, media representatives, South Florida PBS executives and production staff and, of course, “On the Town” host Frank Licari. Most members of the Lake Okeechobee Regional Economic (LORE) Alliance Board of Directors were also present.
The retiring but never shy Roxanne Stein of WPTV-Channel 5 and Fox 29 News acted as mistress of ceremonies, welcoming the crowd into the auditorium for the show and not missing the chance to plug the WXEL-Channel 42 and WPBT-Channel 2 partnership that constitutes South Florida PBS. Ms. Stein’s last day on her TV news jobs was Friday, March 30, and she often was seen raising money on PBS’s behalf and will continue to do that. She proudly noted that this “On the Town” episode is the first one jointly produced by the two PBS stations’ merged staffs and urged the audience to support South Florida PBS.
The PBS show premiere party is one more element in a push now being spearheaded by the LORE Alliance to get more of a share of the county’s huge tourism pie for the impoverished Glades region.
At their meeting on Tuesday, March 13, a quorum of the LORE Alliance board members agreed in unison to embrace a leadership role in carving out a bigger piece of that tourism pie for the Glades. They’d just heard a special presentation from the PBC Tourist Development Council’s executive director, Glenn Jergensen, and Discover the Palm Beaches executive Don Kolodz.
While no one evinced any surprise at Mr. Jergensen’s report that the number of visitors to Palm Beach County has grown by 50 percent since 2011, hitting an estimated 7.9 million in 2017 – even outpacing Florida’s tourist growth of 29 percent over those same years – there were no illusions in the room about the Glades’ share (minuscule). Indeed, he did not even try to break down how many visited the Glades, saying simply, “We’ve made significant progress.”
But his organization and its tourism marketing arm, Discover the Palm Beaches (DTPB), have been working harder lately to help LORE, city governments in the Glades Tri-Cities (Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay), area tourism-related businesses and other stakeholders to attract more tourists, he said. They recently produced the 2018 version of “Discover the Palm Beaches: Official Visitors Guide,” and he noted that perhaps next time, a separate one will be produced for the Glades region. The two tourism promotion leaders’ reason for coming to the LORE meeting March 13 specifically was to discuss how best to achieve the overall goal. Mr. Jergensen asked Mr. Kolodz to talk about their recommendations.
A few minutes into his presentation, LORE board member Carolyn Villanueva of Florida Crystals raised the point that her company is already bringing thousands of tourists into the area during season. “Through our trade association, we bring about 3,000 to 5,000 people to the Glades every harvest season. I don’t know how we extend that visit … to expand on it, because we frequently get requests after these groups have visited with us, ‘Well, what’s next? We want more. We want to go to see a vegetable harvest. We want to go see the packinghouse. We want to take an airboat ride.’ So there’s a lot of this interest already starting, and I just don’t know how we capitalize on that for this region to really take the next step together.” These are the Raising Cane Sugar Tours, she explained, which U.S. Sugar also is involved in, where the visitors are bused in and given complimentary meals and packages of promotional materials. She added that she already conducts tours herself on farms that are not part of her company.
Mr. Kolodz responded: “In my mind it’s called integrated marketing. I call Palm Beach County the Wikipedia of tourism assets, so whether you want to go to the ocean or you want to see Morikami or the Jupiter Lighthouse or go fishing on Lake Okeechobee, there’s so much to do. And that increases length of stay but it also causes people to come back because they discover things that they didn’t know were here.
“In front of you,” he went on, “is our official visitors’ guide. And that’s kind of an encyclopedia of everything there is to do in Palm Beach County. As an example, technically we could include some content in the packages that you’re giving out to your guests to make them aware of what’s going on in this region. So we think what you’re doing is great, and we want to … copy it, so we can keep that momentum going.”
Mr. Kolodz said it starts with the steps they’ve already taken: “Tourism Talks” meetings, which LORE board member and tourism chairman Chris Royal has been helping to coordinate, to make local officials aware of the county help that is available; tourism assets being documented and prioritized; a “SWOT Analysis” completed – that stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats; the PBS “On the Town” episode finalized and made available county- and statewide; and recommendations developed. All are done or in progress, he said, suggesting that also each city needs to identify an individual, elected official or staff, who can focus on tourism development as part of his job. Or give a commitment of money or support toward a centralized tourism office.
“So the next is ‘Formalize a Tourism Steering Committee.’ And to some degree, I’m kind of glad that the mayors and city managers aren’t here so I can speak a little candidly, because as I mentioned, if they aren’t in, this thing is going to crater. They need to say, hey, I’m in, and make a commitment.”
Mr. Kolodz offered:
“We can help build a blueprint for you to execute against. We’ve got over 100 people underneath the TDC umbrella with different disciplines, so we’ve got the skills and competencies, and right now we (the Tri-Cities) don’t have a plan. We’re kind of doing our own thing. We’ve got a fragmented model. And our job as tourism leaders is to put together that blueprint … and then this tourism committee once a quarter will meet and look at the progress we’re making against that plan.”
There were many other recommendations, including forming a tourism committee at the League of Cities; getting businesses to help support tourism marketing; setting up a cooperative advertising fund; investigating grants available through Visit Florida; designating the Pahokee and Belle Glade chambers of commerce and the South Bay county campground as Visitor Information Centers; and developing an overall tourism marketing plan for the Glades.
The board enthusiastically endorsed the county officials’ plans and pledged to move forward on all fronts.