Rural tourism can create jobs and draw vacationers to Florida towns
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Sunshine State has an untapped industry close to home, says a University of Florida researcher studying how rural areas can attract Floridians hungry for relaxation away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities.
Other states have developed prosperous tourist trades by enticing city dwellers to natural and historic places, said Tina Gurucharri, a UF landscape architecture professor, who is leading a team that is exploring similar prospects in Florida.
“Rural tourism is popular because with so many people living in cities today, there are lots of kids who have never been on a farm, ridden a horse or even picked fresh fruit,” she said. “Florida hasn’t really developed this new emerging form of tourism, but other parts of the country have been very successful at it.”
The Midwest has its “farm days,” where children milk cows and feed chickens, and the Rocky Mountains its “cowboy weekends” where families ride horses and round up cattle, Gurucharri said. In North Florida, rural tourism could make a splash in riverside communities, with opportunities to kayak, canoe and paddle; bicycle on tree-lined country roads; and walk through historic downtowns, she said.
Rural tourism offers an economic boost to small communities struggling to survive as young people leave for jobs elsewhere by luring urbanities in the opposite directions and by protecting local “mom and pop” businesses against encroaching mega corporations, she said.
With an anonymous donation, UF’s School of Natural Resources and Environment surveyed Hamilton County residents and businesses for an economic analysis. Students and faculty in UF’s College of Design, Construction and Planning, working with their colleagues in the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, then prepared comprehensive proposals for the county, with its thousands of acres of undisturbed public lands; three pristine rivers and many cemeteries. Suggestions include an eco-lodge on the banks of the Suwannee River; a welcome center combining a farmer’s market, bike rental shop and restaurant that could feature Southern home cooking; and a 425-acre historic district in the town of Jasper.
“Our design approach was to take advantage of the area’s rural character because they have amazing cultural, historical and natural assets,” Gurucharri said. “There are Victorian homes, old cemeteries and live oak trees that are really beautiful.”
The area draws thousands to the annual Florida Folk Festival at the Stephen Foster Folk Cultural Center State Park in White Springs, Gurucharri said. But few concertgoers stay overnight because accommodations are limited to cabins and camping, she said.
To capture those tourist dollars, the UF design team proposed an eco-lodge next to the state park along the river bank, with elevated trails to protect soil and vegetation, Gurucharri said. “Especially as the baby boomers age, while some people like camping along the river, there is another group who want a different experience and can afford to stay in a lodge with hot showers and meals,” she said.
Raising the visibility of Jennings, another Hamilton County town, is the aim of one team proposal to renovate an empty historic brick building along the Interstate 75 corridor at the city’s entrance into a welcome center where visitors could sample fresh produce and Southern cooking and rent bicycles, Gurucharri said. The idea is modeled after the old orange stops along the highway, befitting Jennings’ location near the Florida-Georgia border, she said.
The most extensive revitalization plans are suggested for the town of Jasper, where UF students inventoried 150 historic buildings, many of them old Victorian homes, and proposed creating a pedestrian-friendly residential and commercial historic district.
A redesigned central park would be the civic heart of the community, with arts and crafts fairs and blackberry festivals, around which sidewalk cafes and retail shops could be built, Gurucharri said. Running through the park would be a greenway along an old railroad corridor that bisects downtown, with nearby countywide biking trails, walking paths and a driving path for parades of old cars, she said.
With extensive efforts from local citizens, the city is moving ahead with some of the UF suggestions and is seeking a $500,000 Florida Department of Transportation grant for roadside trees, sidewalks, planters and various central park improvements, Gurucharri said. The first blackberry festival, one of 12 in the United States, is scheduled for June, she said.
Cindy Eatmon, co-owner of Bass Furniture and a lifetime Jasper resident whose roots date back to when the area was homesteaded, praised the UF’s team’s efforts to maintain the town’s rural character and said the timing could not have been better. “Our town was dying,” she said. “It used to be a booming community, but if you drive through town, you see a lot of empty buildings.”