Sumter County invests in tourism’s potential

Larry Smith, of the Village of Fernandina, holds James, a small alligator, on Thursday while visiting GatorWorld Parks of Florida in Wildwood. The park sits a mile off Interstate 75 in Sumter County and is popular among tourists.

With the flick of a blinker and a quick merge off the highway, tourists can go from sitting in traffic to getting up close and personal with an alligator in less than five minutes.

Tourists can tick off an item on their Florida vacation to-do lists by stopping by GatorWorld Parks of Florida in Wildwood, which sits a mile off Interstate 75 in Sumter County.

Alligator-related tourism is one of a variety of tourist industries Sumter County is hoping to promote with incoming tourist development tax funds over the next five years. The Sumter County Board of County Commissioners voted last month to allocate all of the money the county earns from its 2 percent tax on short-term rentals to promoting local events and attractions to draw in more overnight tourists.

“Our advantage is that we’re an easy and convenient opportunity to have an interaction with an alligator since we’re just off the interstate,” said Don Buckner, owner and founder of GatorWorld Parks of Florida. “We consider ourselves an on-the-way destination to other attractions.”

In past years, tourist development tax money has gone to promoting everything from nightly entertainment at The Villages town squares to battle re-enactments at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park.

“We have additional tourism activities that have come into Sumter County, and we want to encourage more large events that have more overnight stays to accompany them,” County Administrator Bradley Arnold said.

The county is trying to capture some of the record number of travelers flocking to the Sunshine State in recent years. According to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing arm, a record number of 116.5 million people visited the state last year, up 3.6 percent from 2016.

GatorWorld Parks became one of the newest attractions in the county after opening last October, Arnold said, along with Blackjack Sporting Clays in Sumterville, which opened in January.

Arnold said both encourage out of town visitors to stop and spend both time and money in Sumter County.

“There’s a lot of side economic benefits to that. If (visitors) stay overnight they’re eating at our restaurants, they’re getting gas and buying things at retail shops,” Arnold said. “As we’re seeing tourism revenues increasing, that’s a benefit to economic development.”

Tourism tax revenue used to be split between 70 percent going toward capital improvements for tourist attractions and 30 percent going toward promotional material for events. Arnold said with $1.2 million already set aside for capital improvements and a lack of applications to utilize the funds, the commission decided the money could be better utilized for promotional purposes.

In the past, a good portion of the capital improvements fund was used to update the Sumter County Fairgrounds, which hosts a variety of events each year including auto and horse shows and the annual Sumter County Fair each spring.

Over the next year, Arnold said, the county expects to bring in roughly $714,000 from the tourist development tax.

“It’s intended to be a self-feeding type system,” Arnold said. “The money that is used to support activities and events is meant to get more heads in beds staying at local hotels, RV parks and other short-term rentals, which continues the cycle.”

Arnold said The Villages has served as its own version of a tourist attraction over the years. The community not only draws family members to town to visit, it also brings a large population of potential homebuyers staying short term to check out the area, he said.

“It’s another draw for people to see what The Villages is. A lot of people don’t understand what it is until they see it, and they may wind up visiting The Villages and falling in love with it,” he said.

The increased demand of those coming to town to check out The Villages, Arnold said, is having an impact on the RV park and hotel industry.

To help meet the need, construction is underway on the 144,000-square-foot Brownwood Hotel & Spa near Brownwood Paddock Square.

The newest RV park, which will be north of State Road 44 just west of the Lake County line, received approval from the Board of Sumter County Commissioners on June 26.

Jessica Kelly, administrator for the Sumter County Chamber of Commerce, said she has seen multiple RV parks open in the area over just the past year alone.

“They’re all crammed full with people looking to explore The Villages who aren’t ready to buy a house yet,” she said.

Buckner said about half of the visitors to GatorWorld come from local areas. The other half, he said, are out-of-state people stopping by on their way to other Central Florida-area attractions.

The park has 18 billboards set up along Florida highways to help encourage drive-by traffic to pull off the road and pay a visit to Sumter County.

“We bring people in from out of the area and we convince people to stop at the Wildwood exit everyday, which brings in business to the county that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” Buckner said.

After an hour or two at GatorWorld, Buckner said, he encourages visitors to stick around and check out a nearby airboat ride or manatee encounter.

Jerry Sloan, the owner of Tom & Jerry’s Airboat Rides in Lake Panasoffkee, said he encourages his customers to stay in town for lunch at Catfish Johnny’s or head down the road to Wild Bill’s Airboat Tours to get a different type of airboating experience.

“We all send each other quite a bit of business,” Sloan said.

Sloan said he can send between 100 and 150 people out on rides in a day. In the winter, that number can jump to 250. About 80 percent of those people, he said, come from out of state.

Sloan said he spends up to $5,000 per month on advertising to draw visitors into Sumter County between billboards, print and digital promotions.

“We do that to try to get them off that interstate instead of continuing on down south,” Sloan said.

Neither Buckner or Sloan said they ever have received funding from the tourist development tax. But both said they will look into applying for promotional funding assistance in the future.

Sarah Wilson is a senior writer with The Villages Daily Sun. She can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5401, or sarah.wilson@thevillagesmedia.com.