Local News

County wants cultural tourists

— Mount Dora, Amelia Island, St. Augustine, Cape Canaveral, Tarpon Springs...

Add Highlands County to the list of interesting Florida weekend trips. At least, that’s the plan that the Tourism Development Marketing Committee hopes Massey Communications will come up with.

Last week, the county commissioners approved hiring the Orlando public relations firm and spending $105,000 on an advertising campaign. Massey will develop ideas and meet with the marketing committee in August, and together they’ll decide how to bring cultural tourism to Avon Park, Sebring and Lake Placid.

“We have major treasures that are very attractive to the cultural tourist,” said Fred Leavitt, president of Heartland Cultural Alliance.

One example: the works of Peter Powell Roberts, who died in April after a teaching career at Ringling College of Art.

“He painted the minutia,” Leavitt said. His oils on wood pallets included a bromeliad growing on dead leaves, a dying palmetto fan, and orange leaves shrouded by Spanish moss. “He was the first person to combine Florida nature with the abstract. If you want to see Peter Paul Roberts on wood, you have to come here.”

Leavitt has signed a contract for a proposed Peter Powell Roberts Museum on the second story of the Avon Park Community Center. It will display 130 paintings and eight sculptures.

Another example: “The Highwaymen were launched from Highlands County,” Leavitt said, a reference to Jim Fitch’s 1990s re-discovery of the black artist group. Fitch directs the Museum of Art and Culture in Avon Park, where 20 Highwaymen landscapes are on a traveling exhibit.

Lake Placid’s 140 murals are one reason why it named America’s Most Interesting Small Town in Reader’s Digest in 2013.

Sebring has the Children’s Museum and the Military Sea Services Museum, and most of Highlands County’s hotels are in Sebring. There’s also the Avon Park Depot Museum, the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum at Highlands Hammock State Park, the Heartland Cultural Alliance Art & Music Gallery inside the Kenilworth Lodge, Highlands Museum of the Arts in downtown Sebring, the Lake Placid Historical Society Depot Museum, the Sebring Historical Society, the Sebring Ridge Museum, Theatre for the Performing Arts at SFSC, and Toby the Clown Foundation College and Clown Museum in Lake Placid.

“The point is to keep people here longer,” Leavitt said.

Exactly how to get the word out — and who to whom — will come from Massey’s expertise.

“When we market Highlands County for the on season, we market to the Midwest,” said Tourism Director John Scherlacher. “And in the off season months, we promote to the state of Florida: Tampa, Sarasota, the East Coast. Massey may suggest California, and the marketing committee may say, ‘That’s not our market. The committee will make sure (Massey) is not going out there in left field, saying, ‘Let’s just give this try.’”

A timeline — which is being revised — shows the advertising coming within a two-month burst. However, Scherlacher sees the arts and culture market as a year-round effort.

Certain TV shows, conventions and gatherings are targeted to the cultural tourist. “Like the art-scene papers in Sarasota,” Leavitt suggested. “Like Orlando Arts Magazine. Orlando has a thriving arts market. They have many museums, and many, many galleries. They are very likely to come down and check it out.” Facebook, Google or Twitter may be used.

“That’s what they going to determine,” Scherlacher said. “It could be young families, it could be baby boomers.”

Winter tourists are directed to golf and fishing attractions. The cultural tourism campaign is designed to broaden the market and put more heads in beds. That’s how the tourism committee and its advertising dollars are funded: a 2 percent tax on hotels, motels and temporary lodgings.

“The tourists we have been courting are sports tourists,” Leavitt said. “They are not shoppers; they don’t have deep pockets. There are more women than men in (the cultural tourism) audience, and that’s who does the shopping.”

“We want them to discover us,” Scherlacher said, “so now we’re adding an arts and culture component. It’s always been there, now we’re going to rev it up. We are definitely worth their trip there.”

The advertising campaign will last a year, Scherlacher said. After that, if the county commissioners approve and if the results look promising, the contract may be extended for another year.

“Depending on how well they (Massey) do, and depending on how much we learn,” Leavitt said. “We will be learning by looking over their shoulders. We may take over and run it the next year.”