Bending the ear about local tourism

The numbers are surprising

By Wesley LeBlanc
Posted 7/18/18

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Clay County residents were asked to voice their opinions about local tourism and where that industry should go in the future in five community meetings held in the area this …

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Bending the ear about local tourism

The numbers are surprising


GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Clay County residents were asked to voice their opinions about local tourism and where that industry should go in the future in five community meetings held in the area this week.

On July 17, nearly 20 people met in an exhibit hall at the Clay County Fairgrounds to take part in an open discussion with the director of Clay County Tourism and Film Development, Kimberly Morgan, and a hired consultant. John Whisenant of North Star Destination Strategies, a community branding and tourism development firm based in Nashville, Tennessee. According to Morgan, the goal of these community meetings, of which there were five held July 17-18, was to gather the community’s thoughts and information that will be used to develop a strategic tourism plan for Clay County.

Of the 19 people that attended this first meeting, County Commissioner Mike Cella, County Manager Stephanie Kopelousos, Green Cove Springs Mayor Van Royal, Green Cove Springs council member Pam Lewis and County Clerk of Court Tara Green, as well as others, were present and committed to weigh in. Whisenant took to the front of the room to explain his role in these meetings.

Whisenant explained how he spent last weekend posing as a tourist in Clay County on what he called a reconnaissance mission.

“I do this to experience what a tourist coming to Clay County might experience,” Whisenant said.

As a tourist, Whiseant experienced, or at least learned about, exactly what those present at the meeting cited Clay County tourism as consisting of: family events, river traffic, golf, concerts, parks and more.

“After my time here, this is what Clay County is,” Whisenant said. “It has a family feel. It’s welcoming. It’s homey.”

One thing Whisenant particularly harped on, and certainly one thing he suggested Clay County hone in on, was the waterways present throughout the area. When he asked the crowd what they thought of Clay’s boat docks and ramps, the crowd was for the most part in agreement that river access was limited at best.

“Our riverways are always limited and even more so on the weekend,” Green said. “We have to open up more boat ramps and areas for people who want to get on the water to do so.”

Another thing attendees agreed on was the history of Clay County, or rather, the preservation of this history. For some, Clay County has a history that needed to be preserved but also not a shackle to the future of the area. For others, like Lewis, she felt that there wasn’t enough appreciation for the history the county holds.

“It’s a mixed bag here when it comes to preserving our history,” Lewis said. “It’s a tug-of-war really. Some want it to be [preserved] and some might not appreciate it enough. That’s something we have to work together on.”

Bed and breakfast owner Dale Garlinghouse of Green Cove Springs said history only matters to a portion of the county and that will only continue to decrease.

“If you weren’t born before 1960, you probably don’t care about the history in Clay,” Garlinghouse said.

When asked how the room feels about the direction tourism in Clay County should go, Clay County Sheriff’s Officer Gary Cross said ‘steady.’

“If we have sudden growth, that brings a new way of life to Clay and that could bring with it increased crime rates,” Cross said. “If [Clay County tourism] maintains steady growth, we, as a county, will be able to grow and adapt with it, which will help maintain our current crime rates, and maybe even lower them.”

Tourism and Clay County don’t to go seem hand in hand, at least in the way say, Orlando and tourism do there, but surprisingly, tourism is a very vibrant section of the county’s economy. According to Whisenant, the U.S. Travel Data Center reported that in 2016, the economic impact of tourism in Clay County was $178 million dollars. Even more surprising, the money earned from tourism helps each and every household.

“We’d all be paying $225 more in taxes, per household, if [out-of-state] tourism wasn’t in Clay,” Morgan said.

On top of that, Morgan said that 3,000 Clay County employees currently work in the tourism sector, which helps the county keep its unemployment rate, which is currently 3 percent, compared to the state’s rate of 3.8 percent.

When asked to name one thing each person would bring to Clay County if money and politics had no part in the decision, the answers began to piece what might become the future of Clay County one day. Garlinghouse said more boat ramps. Green explained that the county needed to create a conference venue that could also serve as a home for a resort-like experience. Royal said the county could use a sports complex, something Whisenant explained is almost always certain to bring in a lot of tourism to an area.

After all was said and done, Whisenant and those present in the meeting had determined four things Clay County needs to do now to develop its tourism industry further. First, utilize the fairgrounds more. Second, develop more attractions, attractors and products to give the county more to market to the rest of the Southeast. From there, the county needs to create a point of differentiation, or something the county can say is unique to it and shouts to potential visitors, “visit us because of this,” and finally, fix its advertising overload.

“If there’s too many signs, too many things reaching for the attention of people, it just becomes white noise,” Whisenant said. “Instead of looking at these things, people driving by might not even register it’s there. We call that chatter in the advertising industry and you don’t ever want too much of it.”

To close out the meeting, Morgan made a plea to those present in the audiences, explaining that without more communication, the tourism of Clay County has nothing to stand on.

“If we don’t know what you’re doing and what you offer to tourists in Clay County, we can’t tell people about you,” Morgan said. “We can’t tell your story.”


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