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Can First Christmas, Festivals Make Tallahassee More Of A Tourist Town?

More people are expected to visit Florida this year than ever before. But while tourism is the No. 1 industry in the state, its impact in the capital city remains relatively small. Local officials are hoping to attract more visitors to Tallahassee with new entertainment and dining complexes, outdoor festivals and a historic site commemorating America’s first Christmas.

Earlier this summer, host Chad Crawford and Chef Justin Timineri shot an episode of the TV show “Florida Cooking” at Tallahassee’s recreated Spanish mission and Apalachee Indian village, Mission San Luis. Tourism marketing group Visit Florida produces the show.

Visit Florida’s efforts have contributed to the state seeing an unprecedented number of visitors this year. Twenty-six million people visited Florida before April – a record for a single quarter. But in Tallahassee, the tourism industry’s recovery has not had nearly the same momentum since the Great Recession.

Florida State University hospitality professor Mark Bonn says, “Although it’s been a growth, it’s been a very, very small, steady, slow, protracted type of a growth.”

Bonn and his team measure and categorize visitors to Tallahassee. He says just 3 percent more people visited in the first quarter of this year compared with the same time last year. And he says Tallahassee just isn’t a tourist destination.

“You come in here asking me about tourism and it’s not that at all,” he says. “It’s visitors.”

He says so called “visitor markets” that lack the draw of beaches or amusement parks shouldn’t expect tremendous tourism growth, even as the economy improves. In Leon County, he says most visitors drive from in-state. About 40 percent of them stay with family members instead of in hotels. And the visitor stream slows to a trickle in the summer and surges when there’s a big Seminole home game or when the Legislature is in session.

But he says the city does stand to gain by playing up its strengths.

“We offer a lot of really high-quality, family-oriented festivals and events. And this is one way that I see Tallahassee-Leon County as differentiating itself from competitive destinations,” he says.

One event, this spring’s Capital Cuisine Restaurant Weeks, brought in more than $1 million of spending. And the city’s director of tourism development, Lee Daniel, says the tourism industry is contributing more and more to the local economy.

“Tourism-related jobs have grown double digits over the last three years. Over 9 percent of the workforce in Leon County now are in tourism-related jobs,” he says.Daniel says those jobs have a median income close to $45,000.

But getting visitors to come for a daytime festival or discounted dining is one thing—getting them to spend the night in town is another.

That goal led FSU officials to pour money into developing College Town, a new complex with retail stores and a rooftop bar with a view of Doak Campbell Stadium. FSU athletics department CFO Matt Behnke explained the College Town investment at a recent Economics Club of Florida meeting.

“One of the reasons that we went this route was because we felt like we needed to make Tallahassee a destination for a weekend because, quite candidly, we face a competition that’s not going away, and that’s television. It’s easier for a lot of people to stay at home and watch the games,” he says.

And while FSU focuses on packing in fans, state and local officials are hoping to attract a whole new type of visitor by marketing Tallahassee as the first place Christmas was celebrated in North America. Mayor John Marks has been pushing the city to invest a quarter-million dollars in renovating the site where Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was believed to have camped during the Christmas season in the early 1500s. 

Marks says, “It is a tremendous opportunity for it to be a tourist attraction, let’s face it. Tremendous opportunity. And we believe that Americans of all faiths will come here to see this site and say, ‘Wow, this is the first site where Christmas was held in the United States.”

The state-owned site off of Lafayette Street about two minutes’ drive from the Capitol is marked by a small sign. It has a gravel parking lot with no room for buses to turn around. When groups have visited from local schools, they’ve had to unload on the street and walk up the driveway. But for four years, Tallahassee Realtor Bert Pope has been pushing officials to make the site more tourist friendly.

“I just can’t let it go. You know, it’s like eating boiled peanuts. I just can’t stop,” he says.

Pope says it started when he saw a news reporter on TV asking local people whether they knew Tallahassee was the site of the first American Christmas, and most people didn’t.

“And I’m kind of like bonking my head because it’s just, the fact that we were not exploiting that—and I hate to use that word—but exploiting that incredibly rich history, it was such a no-brainer,” he says.

And government officials agree. Along with city and county sales tax committees’ recommending investments, the state set aside $150,000 this year to upgrade the site. Add to that an expected National Historic Landmark designation and even an effort to get the Vatican on board with recognizing the site’s significance — by a guy named Pope, no less – and the local Realtor says he envisions signs along Interstate 10 drawing in visitors.

But those visitors may HAVE to come by car.

As Tallahassee Regional Airport interim Director Jay Townsend sees it, “There’s a lot of historical, tribal conversation of ‘Oh, it costs a lot to fly out of Tallahassee.’”

He contends it’s becoming more convenient and affordable to fly through town. But the airport still only has direct flights to a few cities, including Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Charlotte --  most other U.S. destinations require at least one layover.

But Townsend says the airport has its own new marketing plan for attracting visitors to the area.

“We were looking at places like Chicago, some of the northern, eastern, Midwest states, you know, people that want to come to Florida,” he says, and the plan is to

But he says before any great increase in passenger traffic, the airport terminal will need millions of dollars in renovations. And tourism officials will have to do their jobs too, because the visitors on those planes will first have to see Tallahassee as a worthy destination.