It's time to revisit rural Northwest Florida

For Northwest Florida’s northern counties — the ones that bump up against Alabama and are frequently seen only through the blurred window of a car traveling down Interstate 10 — attracting tourists is a frustrating and tough sell.

Welcome Back Washington, Holmes and Jackson counties combine efforts to encourage tourists to take Northwest Florida’s roads less traveled By Lilly Rockwell Originally published in the Feb/Mar 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine

For Northwest Florida’s northern counties — the ones that bump up against Alabama and are frequently seen only through the blurred window of a car traveling down Interstate 10 — attracting tourists is a frustrating and tough sell.

By comparison, beachside counties such as Bay and Okaloosa seem to effortlessly lure tourists with their white-sand beaches, bustling shopping malls and resort hotels.

In an effort to channel some of those tourist dollars that gravitate toward beachside counties, northern Jackson, Holmes and Washington counties have developed an ambitious plan to showcase the tourist attractions they have to offer.

Starting last year, officials from the tourist development councils within each sparsely populated county began brainstorming for ways to encourage more day trips to their area.

There are a surprising number of hidden attractions in these counties, but it’s tough to get the word out with a small tourist development budget funded with bed taxes. Washington, Jackson and Holmes counties have a limited selection of hotels and bed-and-breakfast houses. “The three counties are banding together to combine our resources and combine our … money, time, energy and effort,” said Paul Donofro, the chairman of the Jackson County Tourist Development Council and a Marianna city commissioner.

Though each county shares a rural heritage, they all have something different to offer visitors, whether it’s a nationally known wolf preserve in Washington County or springs featuring crystal-clear scuba diving into underground caves in Jackson County.

“We came up with lists of local attractions, such as state parks, and we made a master list of all three counties and developed a database where we could pull itineraries based on the time of year,” said Heather Lopez, an administrator with the Washington County Tourist Development Council. The idea is to encourage day trips focused on certain themes, such as agricultural tourism.

Lopez said the counties are hoping to lure tourists from nearby Bay County, for instance, who may want to explore more of Florida beyond its beaches.

The idea is to offer tourists daylong, all-inclusive guided tours to choose from, such as going on tours of local farms or state parks. A tour operator would provide a bus to take visitors to all the locations and provide a meal, with the costs paid up front. Ideally, visitors could even be picked up from their hotels in Bay County.

Each local tourist development council would then contribute money toward vigorously promoting these trips through ads in magazines and brochures.

“It’s an interesting concept,” said Alicia Kidd-Gonsalves, who promotes tourism to Holmes County. “I have a campground and people stay for longer periods and it’s nice that I can now send them to different places. Hopefully it’s a major draw.”

If successful, their model could be the envy of rural counties everywhere.

So what is there to do in rural Florida? As it turns out, plenty.

One asset Washington, Holmes and Jackson counties have over their beach neighbors is their abundant lakes, rivers and pine forests. Lopez said they plan to encourage “eco-tourism,” which can include kayaking, hiking or bird-watching. The Great Florida Birding Trail travels through these counties and there are myriad state parks.

“We are trying to attract people to see natural resources, (such as) water-based amenities,” Donofro said. “We’ve got a first-magnitude spring located in Jackson County called Blue Springs. It feeds into a large pond. It’s an extremely beautiful riverway and is used by Florida State students and others that come up in the summer and rent canoes, kayaks or tubes.” He described the water as “crystal clear” and shallow.

Blue Springs and other nearby springs attract scuba divers from all over the world because of the clarity of the water and abundance of underground caverns.

The counties also want to showcase their state parks. In Washington County, visitors can view a 73-foot waterfall — Florida’s biggest — at the appropriately named Falling Waters State Park. At Florida Caverns State Park near Marianna, visitors descend into the cool air of underground caves to observe the ancient stalagmites and stalactites that adorn the ceilings and cave floors. And when you’re done with that, Florida Caverns, like other state parks, offers horseback riding trails, swimming, canoeing and boating.

These counties are also a destination for hunters. During season, typically October through April, some private lands offer quail or deer hunting as well as lodging. In Washington County, hunters can rent a cottage from Hard Labor Creek Plantation that is steps away from a quiet lake, with thousands of acres to roam. (There are also opportunities for ATV rides, archery and skeet shooting).

In Jackson County, there is Dan-D-Ridge Plantation, which also offers quail hunting and an expansive 7,500-square-foot lodge decorated with — what else? — mounted buck heads.

There’s a plethora of farms that grow corn or have milk dairy cows, and even a Christmas tree farm with a festive shop where visitors can purchase holiday trinkets. Visitors can also sample the farms’ products and learn about the area’s contribution to local food sources. “A lot of it is going to be educational,” Lopez said. There’s also a local winery in Washington County called Three Oaks that offers tours and sips of its wines.

History buffs can indulge in self-guided historic tours of downtown Chipley, Marianna or Bonifay, and learn local lore such as which 1800s-era buildings are rumored to be haunted. There are even antebellum mansions and Civil War skirmish sites to visit.

Seasonal parades and festivals spotlight local offerings. Marianna has its two-day “Fine Swine Dine” barbecue brouhaha each April. And Wausau, in Washington County, is known statewide for its August 0possum-eating festival in which a King and Queen are crowned. The catch: this vote is for being the ugliest, not prettiest, person in town.

Tourism promoters in these counties hope there’s enough to tempt tourists to sample day-trips and get a glimpse into the hidden Florida. If they like visiting for a day, it could entice them to stay longer and ignite an industry that had never thrived before in off-the-beaten-track counties.

“We’ve never been marketed as a destination,” explained Lopez. “For the longest time, nobody even knew where Washington County was. We don’t have huge attractions like Panama City … but we are a unique place and we have really neat stuff, like the wolf preserve.”

Tourism officials from the three counties hope to have the day trip tours up and running by summer.


The Lure of Washington, Jackson and Holmes counties

  • There are four state parks in the tri-county area: Three Rivers, Florida Caverns, Falling Waters and Ponce de Leon Springs State Park.
  • Washington County has the largest wolf preserve in the Southeastern United States. Seacrest Wolf Preserve sits on 400 acres and allows visitors the rare opportunity of visiting, petting and even howling with the wolves inside their enclosures.
  • Ebro Greyhound Race Track in Washington County was built in 1955 and offers a taste of Las Vegas with seasonal greyhound races, simulcast betting and poker playing.
  • Antebellum plantations and post-Civil War mansions abound in historic Jackson County. There are more than a dozen privately owned Greek and Classical revival mansions in the county.
  • Golfers, not to worry. Each county has a privately owned 18-hole golf course.