Rusty Gardner’s Boat Florida Rentals business on Doctors Lake in Clay County brings in fairly steady customers. But if Clay County’s tourism profile was better, Gardner said he’d probably easily expand.

 

“I think the aspect to see Clay County from the water is something a lot of people don’t think about,” Gardner said. “But the [St. Johns] River runs through it, Doctors Lake, Black Creek, there are all these great waterways for tubing, kayaking, boating or whatever the case is.

“In order to experience Florida, it’s one of the few ventures around that you can actually go and spend the day on the water,” Gardner said.

That’s a good draw for the booming tourism industry.

And Clay County wants in on the boom.

Boat Florida Rentals has seven vessels for rent ranging from pontoon to deck boats in the 22-foot-range and Gardner said his business does well in rentals for mostly local customers. But if there was any effort to bring more visitors to Clay County, he’d provide more boats for rental.

“If Clay County tourism grows, we’d definitely have to grow with it,” Gardner said.

It’s a sentiment among several businesses in Clay County and many government officials who feel the county is missing out on the tourism industry that has set records for visitation in Florida over the past several years.

In effort to capture some of that economic impact, Clay County is in the formative stages of developing a multi-year approach to bringing more tourists. Some $60,000 in grant money has already been spent on developing a new logo for Clay County and a tourism director has been hired at a cost of some $66,000 a year to specifically formulate a tourism program.

Clay County Commissioner Mike Cella, who is also the chairman of the Tourist Development Council, said he wants the county to stop missing out on the huge revenue potential of tourist visitation.

“We recognize that the state of Florida is setting records in tourism. But you also have to be in a situation to ask people to come visit you,” Cella said.

Cella has some experience in bringing people to the county. He was once the owner of Jumperz Fun Center in Orange Park which features games and activities for party-style events. But Cella said Clay County could do so much more in attracting visitors, which has become a lost effort there.

“I thought it was really important that we go after tourism, which has been sort of dabbled in here,” Cella said, but there’s never been a concerted effort to get Clay County in the thick of the tourism market.

“I think we have some natural resources that are attractions that can act as tourist destinations. We’re working on more. We see it as a very important economic development cog to draw people in to be able to spend money here, to stay at the hotels and do all the things that tourists do when they stop in a community,” Cella said.

Clay County started the year in ramping up its tourism efforts by hiring Kimberly Morgan to serve as director of tourism. She left her position in marketing and development with Visit Jacksonville to take the Clay County job, though she’s lived in Clay County for 20 years.

Morgan acknowledged Clay is almost starting from scratch in terms of establishing some sort of tourism plan. But she’s convinced it can be done, though it will take years to develop a serious approach to attracting visitors.

“I think it’s a matter of us being creative. What do we want people to experience here? That goes with the branding,” Morgan said. “We are in the process of clearly defining that.”

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A big part of that branding, at least in the beginning, is the development of the logo that was designed by Burdette Ketchum marketing firm in Jacksonville.

The new logo features large “Clay County” lettering in the center with steeples of buildings on top and the phrase “Small towns. Big Passions,” over a blue aquatic image on the bottom. The logo will be placed at several key locales in the county and is designed to provide an identity for the county based on six themes including family, natural amenities, country and military heritage, faith, small town feel and development for the future.

Will Ketchum, president and CEO of Burdette Ketchum, said it may appear to be just a logo. But the image is an important step for future visitation in Clay County.

“We did a significant discovery and immersion process. We studied the history of the county and studied the experience of the county. …” Ketchum said. “We specifically honed in on the small towns.

“When you’re an outlying county of a major metro area, you tend to get viewed as a larger, amorphous space with a couple of state highways that travel through it. But what we saw was actually several wonderful communities that represent nice little experiences for visitors or residents,” Ketchum said.

Morgan said the county is already planning to place the signs at least in 16 locations. It might add the county logos on top of individual municipal logos, such as above the Keystone Heights logo or in Middleburg or Green Cove Springs.

“Burdette Ketchum was really able to nail who we are as a community,” Morgan said. “We have a full implementation plan. We’re wrapping up our standards guide now. … We are taking an inventory of everything. The new logo will be replacing everything” regarding high-profile displays, including buildings such as libraries and similar structures.

Morgan said she has no estimate how much they’ll end up spending on the logo conversion. But it’s the beginning of establishing a visual identity for the county.

Eventually, Cella said Clay County will not necessarily promote itself as a single tourist destination — and he doesn’t even want marketing help from Visit Florida, the state’s tourism bureau. But he sees Clay County as becoming a piece of a bigger tourism puzzle on the First Coast and will seek cooperative efforts with other counties.

“We can’t stand alone. We have to attract people here to the region and once they’re here in the region we’ve got something that will attract them. They come here and enjoy it and put us on the visit list once in a while. Then they can go home and tell the story how they had a great time in Clay County,” Cella said.

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The financial impact of tourism is substantial.

Visit Florida, the state’s tourism bureau said last week that there were 60.7 million visitors to Florida for the first half of 2017, that’s the most ever for the first six months of any year in Florida history. It’s also a 4.1 percent increase over the same time period in 2016.

On the First Coast, that trend is pumping revenue into businesses and municipalities that are actively trying to lure tourists.

Tourism trends, showing occupancy rates at Duval County hotels increased. And tourism spending on hotel rooms went up by more than $12 million in the first six months — from $212.41 million in the first half of 2016 to $224.97 million for the same time frame this year.

Meanwhile, St. Johns County, a traditional tourism hub, also saw spikes in occupancy rates and revenue even though that county has added more hotel rooms, too.

The St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau reports STR figures show the rate for the first six months of hotel occupancy was 70.75 percent this year, up from the average rate for the first half of 2016, which was 70.17 percent. The amount spent at hotels for room rentals jumped from $95.52 million in the first six months of 2016 to $101.77 million for the same time period this year, a record high for St. Johns County.

In Nassau County, the Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau saw a slight drop in hotel occupancy, coming in at 74.35 percent average for the first six months of this year, down a bit from the 2016 figure of 74.58 percent. But Amelia Island, too, saw an increase in the number of hotel rooms.

The revenue generated at those resorts and hotels went up in the first half of the year. There was $57.79 million spent at Nassau County hotels, up from the 2016 figure of $55.95 million.

Drew Dixon: (904) 359-4098