SEBRING - Jim Johnson checked out three books on Tuesday at Sebring's public library. He's staying in Highlands County a little longer. "I told the kids, 'Let me know when the weather breaks,'" said Johnson, who drives a Jeep with Ohio license plates. "They said 'Dad, we'll call when we start mowing the lawn.'" Tuesday's rainy weather wasn't ideal in Highlands County, but a major storm was due to rake the Southeast this week, moving showers and thunderstorms northeastward. Even worse, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had forecast snow over the Appalachians, Mid-Atlantic and New England for Tuesday. By Wednesday, flakes were expected over the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley.
The winter of 2013-14 has been one of the coldest on record for Chicago, New York and Toronto, but it's been great for Tampa, Miami and Sebring. Northerners, it seems, would rather head South. Last week, the Tampa Tribune reported, more than 42,000 people had entered a sweepstakes for a free Florida getaway to St. Pete and Clearwater. In January, Pinellas County attracted 295,900 overnight visitors, about 6 percent more than the previous month. In Fort Lauderdale, hotels and motels were booking weary students anxious to trade their snow boots for flip-flops. At Sebring Village Mobile Home Park, many of the Canadian visitors are packing up, but that's not because of the weather, said manager Tanya Oden. "They have to go back, no matter what," she said. "Even it's lousy weather," said Highlands County Tourism Director John Scherlacher. U.S. visas are good for six months only. "We do have a few (Americans) who are staying longer, waiting for the weather to break," Oden said. "We haven't seen a lot of people heading north yet, and I think it's just because of the weather," said David Ford, director of operations at Sun N' Lake Golf Club. "Our membership levels have stayed steady. They came in October, and they are still here. They haven't left to go back home yet." "The longer they stay, the longer they're going to be in Panera and filling up with gas and going to the grocery stores," said Scherlacher, "It's a benefit for us and a benefit for Florida. They're keeping their dollars here." Winter visitors who stay less than six months are keeping hotels and RV parks busy, and contribute to the 2 percent hotel-motel tax, Scherlacher said. While they're here, seasonal residents golf, fish, visit the state park, shop all three downtowns, and attend the musical performances at South Florida State College. "They have an afternoon series geared toward seasonal residents," Scherlacher said. That's the Matinee Series, with music every Tuesday through January, February and March, featuring musical styles from Elvis to Motown to Conway Twitty. "Weather affects tourism a great deal," Scherlacher said. "Who wants to come to Florida when a hurricane is predicted?" And, he added, who wants to drive back North when snow and ice are on the ground? "The test of when they go home will be during the first two weeks of April," Ford said. "It's March, so we're still getting groups coming in from the local camps and parks like Adelaide Shores and Tanglewood." At the Sebring library, where there were still as many out-of-state tags in the parking lot as Florida plates, Dan Negron still hasn't made up his mind when to migrate north. A daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren are coming April 20 for Easter. "Right now, it's still up in the air," Negron said. "We may stay on a few days after that." firstname.lastname@example.org 863-386-5828863-386-5828