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TDC, Leavitt make peace on eco-tourism exhibit

SEBRING - Fred Leavitt changed his mind, and so did the Tourism Development Council. On Thursday morning, Leavitt presented two $1,000 grant requests and kept his temper this time, although he was peppered again with questions. Four months ago, although TDC members liked the Heartland Cultural Alliance projects, they didn't approve Leavitt's $5,000 proposal to produce a library exhibit explaining the Lake Wales Ridge. When Leavitt asked librarians around the state if they would be interested in the exhibit, he learned they didn't know about the ridge. A million years ago, when ocean levels were higher, geologists believe Florida was just an island ridge 150 miles long and a few miles wide, extending through current-day Osceola, Orange, Lake Counties, Polk and Highlands counties.
Today's Lake Wales Ridge is still the highest point in peninsular Florida. The HCA president asked artists and photographers to produce 50 paintings and photos of owls, insects, lakes and sunsets to attract eco-tourists such as bird watchers to Highlands County. Leavitt had also offered to print 3,000 brochures for $1,000, and to send four artists to set up the library exhibits, speak with patrons and local reporters, then come back two months later to move the exhibits to another library. "Let me just ask in point-blank fashion, if we would agree to $5,000, would you or anybody else get salaries?" Elwell asked in June. The money would be distributed according to need, Leavitt said. He had also wanted to sell prints of the photographs on the exhibit. "That's more money coming into the county. Hey, I think it's a good thing," Leavitt said. Council member Terry Heston offered a motion to print the brochures only. "No deal. You're making a counter offer, and I'm not accepting it," Leavitt said testily. "We've put a year's worth of effort into producing the raw materials, producing the prints, at no expense to you guys. We've put a lot of time and money in the images." "I declined before," Leavitt said Thursday, wearing an HCA cap. "I would like to change my mind. He again offered to print 3,000 brochures for $1,000. After TDC members asked about a landing page on their own VisitHighlandsCounty.com website that would also feature the brochure content, they approved Leavitt's idea without further discussion. "That was easy," Chairman Don Elwell grinned. Then Leavitt removed his HCA cap and started on the next grant request, $1,000 for distribution and set up of an art exhibit. "Oh, you're really changing hats?" Elwell asked. "Yes. I am Fred Leavitt, president of Fred Leavitt Inc.," he said. "Think of the exhibit as an indoor billboard in a high-traffic area in major cities in Florida." As many as 32,000 people will pass through the Tampa library, he said. "It's a very powerful exhibit; it will attract attention." He offered to drive the exhibit to all four cities, set it up, then come back two months later, tear it down and take it to the next city. Would Leavitt be paid on invoice, without supporting documents, asked secretary Dana Knight. "We're contracting with Fred Leavitt Inc. That is the backup," Elwell said. "Which is really very reasonable," Heston said. Still, council member Christine Hatfield insisted, would Leavitt supply an estimate from Fed-Ex or UPS for that shipping would cost by that method? "What it's costing you to put it together, with shipping costs - that's the way I would feel comfortable." "You lost me there," Leavitt contested. "You want an invoice for shipping?" If the TDC bought an ad, it wouldn't ask the magazine for production cost verification, he protested, but he finally agreed, and suggested photographing the exhibit in the library too. "What we're paying him for is transport," Elwell said. "There is certainly some value to a person taking it over there. My only concern is precedent." The council agreed 5-0 to pay $250 each for the first two cities, then review how much website traffic the exhibit generates. They also approved four cycles for submitted grants, in October, January, April and June. The application deadline is two weeks before the TDC meetings. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828