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Rural Tourism In Panhandle Relies On Marketing Natural Environment

small white building in front of a group of trees
Panhandle Pioneer Settlement - Facebook
The Panhandle Pioneer Settlement is Calhoun County's main tourist attraction.

Nature-based tourism holds promise for Northwest Florida communities where jobs are scarce. Getting that industry off the ground has proven challenging in rural Calhoun County, which is still recovering from Hurricane Michael.

The county's main tourist attraction is the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement, which relies on the region's eco-diversity to draw in visitors. "I think the hurricane did in the peacocks," said Robert Voss, a volunteer at the settlement. "They used to roam all over here, making their unique noise, and they're so pretty when they spread. I think those are gone.”

Voss and his wife have worked on the settlement since they moved to the county 16 years ago.

In addition to chickens, guineas and ducks, the settlement has several gardens and more than a dozen historic buildings. Log cabins, a school house, barber shop and jail cell are among the displays.

“It’s the only thing that draws people in from out of the county here," said Willard Smith, the settlement's founder and caretaker. "And it’s hard to get the flow back with the way it is because people want to stay inside and stay away from the virus.”

The settlement markets itself through word-of-mouth, social media and brochures placed at travel stops. Smith says they lack the funding to do much more.

“[For] all this advertising to get the people to come in, you’ve got to have a tourism center. Bay County’s got that. Tallahassee’s got that," he said. "We do not have that. We do not have anything to attract people driving through Blountstown.”

And that’s the problem, said Kristy Terry, executive director of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce. She says the county needs businesses. And local leaders are open to discussions with anyone looking to invest in the county.

“At this point as we kind of envision our future, there are lots of things up in the air," Terry said. "But what we see is that nothing is off the table."

Reconstruction and an expansion of the county’s storm-damaged airport will begin this weekend.

One company that could use the terminal is Cholla Petroleum, which recently secured several permits to look for oil on private land. It was controversial—with environmentalists arguing against the permits, and county officials (facing few prospects for business growth) pushing for them.

Terry says if the company finds oil, it would help the local economy. "It would certainly peak others' interest in our area."

The county is also rebuilding its storm-damaged hospital, a project that's expected to create at least 50 new health care jobs within the first year after the new facility reopens.

With plans to rebuild the hospital and airport underway, developing a tourism industry has been put on the back burner. But it’s not out of the running. Terry says the county just doesn’t have enough places for people to stay—like hotels and campgrounds. The county also lacks a marina.

“On the Apalachicola River, there is an opportunity for someone to develop some sort of fuel stop for boating and recreational boat use on that river," Terry said. "Currently, there are no fuel stops between Chattahoochee and Apalachicola. That is something that’s been needed for a very long time.”

More than 70 miles southwest of Blountstown, ecotourism is rescuing local businesses from pandemic-related revenue losses. Tourism's transition to the county's main industry started a decade ago, amid a decline in the area's dominant seafood industry.

Birding is one of the many outdoor activities Franklin County offers to tourists.
Franklin County Tourism Development Council
Birding is one of the many outdoor activities Franklin County offers to tourists.

In Franklin County, nature-based activities, such as birding, hiking, kayaking and paddling, attracted visitors through the summer and into the fall.

“Tourism is a major industry in Franklin County and ecotourism is a huge part of that major economy," said John Solomon, director of the county's Tourism Development Council. "We are the forgotten coast. We are that natural environment.”

He says the council has worked with Calhoun County’s Chamber of Commerce to promote the region. Solomon says having an organization dedicated to tourism has proven vital to Franklin County’s industry.

“Without our TDC, it would be left to small chambers of commerce - that do not have a large budget, that have just a minimal amount of businesses as their members - to be able to advertise on a national level.”

Local tourism councils typically levy bed taxes that pay for marketing campaigns, which often include radio and TV ads.

“We did four commercials about our wide open spaces, and how you can come
here and get away," Solomon said. "We had hoped that it would cause an even occupancy rate. And it actually created a very high increase.”

Solomon says the county’s occupancy rate is up by 20% from last year.

"That caused us to have a lot of people that are still working in Franklin County," Solomon said. "A lot of it is because of the ecotourism, which is helping our job market stay fresh.”

Join WFSU and partners on October 20, 2020 at 7 pm ET for a virtual screening and discussion about the future of the Apalachicola River and the Forgotten Coast. Register:wfsu.org/ageofnature

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.