KEYSTONE HEIGHTS – Officials in Keystone Heights are determined to leave a lasting impression with a certain type of visitor who travels to the city.
The city recently received its passport stamp from the Florida Trail Association, which means it joined the ranks of nearly a dozen other areas throughout the state on the Florida National Scenic Trail. When cyclists and hikers who own a Trail Association Passport come through town, city officials can now stamp their passports showing proof they have travelled to the city in the Lake Region.
“This is a way to encourage people to explore Keystone and see everything that we, the residents, love about it,” said mayor Karen Lake.
Spanning over 1400 miles, the Florida National Scenic Trail takes hikers from the Everglades area of the state to Pensacola Beach. In July, the Florida Trail Association created a passport program, similar to what a hiker might find on the Appalachian Trail. The booklet gives hikers a rite of passage to achieve on the famed Florida trail, but a number of communities, like Keystone Heights, will provide discounted amenities and more to hikers making a pit stop here.\
Lake said becoming a stop on the passport was a no-brainer.
Halle Goldstein, Gateway Community Coordinator for the Florida Trail Association, spearheaded the passport program. Her job sees her traveling to communities along the trail and explaining to them why they should become a passport destination. When she made her way to Keystone Heights, she saw a lovely city that hikers could enjoy.
“Basically, what we’ve done is set up a partnership with the city hall and local businesses to create advertising for both the city and [the Florida Trail Association] while providing bonuses and opportunities for hikers along the trail,” Goldstein said.
This relationship between the parties involved comes by way of a grant that allows Keystone Heights to enter the passport program cost-free. According to Goldstein, the grant allows the city to obtain the passport stamp for free and set up opportunities for extra business and economic growth as well.
“We want our hikers going through this city feeling welcome,” Goldstein said. “At the same time, we’re hoping our hikers will spend their money at local businesses. In return, we’d ideally see a relationship grow that sees local business providing hikers with extra water, a place to change clothes or even a hiker’s discount.
“This relationship is, at the end of the day, supposed to be mutual and ideally, this passport program is another way for the town and local businesses to get their name out there and an excuse for hikers to go out of their way to check the area out,” Goldstein said.
Former Keystone Heights Mayor Tony Brown was a huge advocate for the Florida Trail program. For him, not only is the passport program a great touchstone for the community, but a great way to get people who would otherwise pass the city up, to stop by.
“I always saw it as a benefit economically to Keystone,” Brown said. “Having a trailhead in Keystone Heights, which is what we were ultimately trying to accomplish, would bring in bikers and hikers and those bikers and hikers might have breakfast or lunch in Keystone. Then, Keystone is on their map from that point.
“The trails help build the economy,” Brown continued. “Often, people come to a place new to them looking to spend money and economically, for Keystone, that’s what we want. It sounds like this [passport program] will help continue that so I completely support it.”
Lake, who Brown said is the reason Keystone Heights is on the passport, is excited to see new people in Keystone Heights as a result of the program and hopes to see continued growth along the trails.
“This is just so exciting,” Lake said. “It’s a free opportunity to have hikers and more come into our city and see what’s great about it. It’s in effect now and we look forward to the hikers coming in [to City Hall] for a stamp.”
Hikers and cyclists can purchase the passport directly from the Florida Trail Association website floridatrail.org for $5. To obtain the Keystone Heights stamp, which is free, simply go to the Keystone Heights City Hall and ask to be stamped.