Rural tourism economic option for northern Florida

In Self-Publishing on April 1, 2010 at 5:53 pm

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – For many, the sound of an ambulance wailing is commonplace. Though maybe the noise is so regular, it is not even annoying anymore, listening to quiet might be a nice change.

For those in Hamilton County, they might not consider their quiet as a natural resource. But it is. As are its lakes, rivers and forests.

Located north of Suwannee County on the Suwannee River and bordering Georgia, Hamilton County is home to White Springs and its annual Florida Folk Festival. The less well-known towns of Jasper and Jennings can also be found there. Though traditionally based on agriculture, a recent University of Florida study shows they can get into another industry: tourism.

“Disney isn’t the only form of tourism,” said Jim Cato, professor emeritus of the UF Food and Resource Economics Department and leader of this research project, in a phone interview. “There are a lot of other activities that people enjoy and need to do.”

The findings were presented in response to the initial problem of revitalizing small towns in a changing economy.
Faculty from both the Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences and the College of Design, Construction and Planning collaborated in a multi-faceted analysis to answer the specific needs of these communities.

Jasper, population 1,840, has significant potential in its historic buildings. Its current layout is also a plus. An abandoned railroad bed could easily be converted to a greenway or lush bike and walking path, with additional routes available for further travel and sightseeing.

Jennings, population 843, has significant natural beauty as part of the Upper Alapaha Conservation Area, Jennings Bluff Tract and the Alapaha Sinks, which are woody areas perfect for hiking.

Maria C. “Tina” Gurucharri, a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, worked on the project and noted that a key element of this rural tourism plan is to take advantage of natural resources in a way to generate economic revenue while still preserving the resources for generations to come.

Unlike other areas of Florida, which are overdeveloped, “development has sort of bypassed these areas,” said Gurucharri.

“Most people love this place and they don’t really want to leave,” Gurucharri added. It’s really just a matter of local economic opportunities.

Areas in the Midwest and New England have long utilized the draw of their unique surrounds, and northern Florida has the same opportunities to welcome others into unique and relaxing environments.

Community could be considered the lynchpin of these plans. To ensure effective and realistic results, researchers surveyed businesses, community members and high school youth to ensure a realistic picture of the towns and where they wanted to go.

“The town is planning its way into the future,” Cato said. “Sort of choose to be in charge of your own destiny, if you want to put it that way. Choose to do it their way.”

Despite, or maybe due to the size of the towns, possibilities include bike trails with points of interest, historical tours able to be programmed into a GPS, canoeing, hiking and sampling local flavor, like the taste of ripe blackberries, which will be featured in an upcoming festival in Jasper.

“It’s about looking at what you have with new possibilities and not thinking we all have to be the same,” Cato said. “If you have natural and cultural resources, maybe enhance those. Be yourself and it will attract.”


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