Local News

Local tourism appears to be picking up slightly

SEBRING - Jim and Karen Soltis are full-time RVers who move from one camp site to another, often state parks, serving as volunteer camp hosts.

They saw Highlands Hammock State Park mentioned on the Florida Park System web site, and when the chance came to apply as camp hosts, they took it.

Since the time Jim Soltis pulled in his motor home into the serene, shaded camping ground Nov. 1, it's been a good four months, and "we are coming back again next year," he said.

He gushed about the friendly park rangers, the abundance of wildlife in the 9,000-acre park, the number of activities for park visitors and the peace and quiet that hangs in the air.

"It's been a pleasure," he smiled.

Just like Soltis, Bill Barnes and Shawn Santos are first-time visitors to Highlands Hammock, drawn to the park because it fell on their route, intrigued it is one of Florida's oldest state parks, its atmosphere of serenity and its canopy of oak-lined trees, draped by Spanish moss.

These short-term visitors to Highlands County also are contributing to an uptick in local tourism, and after some bleak years during the recession when tourist tax revenue fell, the bed tax collection posted a steady growth a second year in a row.

The tourist development tax, as it's officially called, is a 2 percent charge on the revenue collected on short-term rentals, which are typically less than six months.

In the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2012 and ended Sept. 30, 2013, the tourist tax revenue was $322,711, 5.6 percent higher than the corresponding period the previous fiscal year.

The $17,100 gain is a "slight increase," Highlands County Tourism Director John Scherlacher said, but shows an encouraging trend that visitors are coming back to the county.

While January to March has been steady, there has been a slight increase in bed tax collection in the other months, he said.

His office markets Highlands County to the Midwest, Canadian and Northeast retiree markets in the winter months, and to Florida residents in the summer.

Some recent publicity in the media has helped put Highlands County out there, he said, and its big draws include its golf courses, its lakes, its fishing and cycling events, car races, to name a few.

When he prepares his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, Scherlacher is going to do what he did this year - project a budget increase in the revenues collected.

The uptick in local tourism also is in line with the state, which recently announced that Florida tourism hit a record in 2013 with 94.7 million visitors, a 3.5 percent jump from 2012's previous high of 91.5 million visitors.

Scherlacher said Highlands County is "trending" with the state.

While tourist markets in the state have recovered differently, those who deal with out-of-town visitors locally are not gushing about an influx but either say the numbers have been steady or have gone up slightly.

Highlands Hammock Park Manager said, "it does seem like the economy is improving and people are beginning to spend money," although winters are busy months for the park's camp sites.

Highlands Ridge Golf Course Assistant Golf Club Manager and Head Golf Professional Michael Lamere said January and February was steady with non-resident golfers and is expecting March and April to be slightly better.

"It appears the number of (non-residents golfers) has gone up slightly," he said."Not dramatically."

A "booming" year for the golf course was 2007 when several players came on short-term golf packages, and the number of non-resident golfers exceeded those who live in the Avon Park community and are members.

These days it's more like half-in-half.

Highlands Ridge has been advertising to Florida-based groups, its selling point being its relatively low green fees compared to courses in Tampa, Orlando and South Florida, Lamere said.

"We try to work with the hotels," he said. "We have tried to make a push to find people."

Over at the Children's Museum of the Highlands, the number of visitors walking through the door has been largely steady over the course of the year, although monthly counts have fluctuated, said Museum Executive Director Linda Crowder.

Crowder, who has started keeping track of the number of out-of-towners the museum serves, was astounded to find out that people from 496 different zip codes visited the museum in the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31.

"We get people from all over the world," she said.