|Volunteers plant wetland vegetation during Project GreenShores.|
The tourism recovery expectations of Pensacola’s travel industry were given a boost at the end of March when over 200 Tourism Cares volunteers from across the country converged on the northwestern Florida city to plunge into two local infrastructure improvement projects. Plagued by the stock market crash of 2008, the recession of 2009 and the disastrous Gulf oil spill of 2010, Florida’s northwestern coastal corner has not been treated kindly in recent years.
However, the strong start of the 2012 Gulf Coast spring-summer vacation season, including the largest St. Patrick’s weekend crowds seen here in several years, has sparked expectations that Pensacola’s travel volume may increase by 6 percent this year. It may even surpass the city’s 2007 peak tourism record, according to Innisfree Hotels President and CEO Julian MacQueen, who owns Hilton, Holiday Inn and Hampton Inn properties on Pensacola Beach.
Tourism Cares for Pensacola organizers could not have picked a more opportune time to help fuel local optimism. Pensacola has reasons, including a $180 million Gulf Coast advertising campaign financed nationwide by oil spill culprit British Petroleum, for hoping to graduate in the next few years from a southeastern regional drive-in vacation destination to one that draws more visitors from the Midwest and Far West.
Dozens of Tourism Cares volunteers spent March 29 sprucing up the 19th century Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum with newly whitewashed rooms, walls and a surrounding picket fence, as well as a resodded front lawn with trees and walkways lined with new floral plantings.
|Volunteers help spruce up the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum.|
The lighthouse is situated at the western end of Pensacola on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Air Station that is home to the famed Blue Angels. Standing 191 feet above sea level, the top of the lighthouse is reached by 177 steps and affords great views of the wild beauty of the protected coast of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, including historic (circa 1834) Fort Pickens, lying on Santa Rosa Island just across Pensacola Bay. The lighthouse alone received 100,000 visitors in 2011, according to Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum Curator Erika Rain Wilhite.
A second team of Tourism Cares volunteers spent their day on the eastern side of Pensacola getting their feet wet in “Project GreenShores,” an effort in the city’s Bayview Park and its adjacent Bayou Texar. The project was coordinated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and headed by Zack Schang, an environmental specialist with the University of West Florida. “This is an ecosystem restoration,” said Schang. “We are planting native, salt-tolerant wetland vegetation to stabilize existing vegetation. The new plantings are anti-erosion as they filter pollution and prevent runoff from storm water.”
Tourism Cares Executive Director Bruce Beckham, when asked how Pensacola was selected, said the idea was initiated by Anne Davis, president of Cruises and Tours Worldwide, St. Louis. “Anne had brought tours here and heard about Project GreenShores,” said Beckham. “She fell in love with the project and with Pensacola. Then when I came down and we met Lori Coppels [group sales manager for Visit Pensacola, the Pensacola Bay Area CVB], we heard about the lighthouse project and we wanted to work on that too.”
Local Pensacola Response
Local hosts of the event—headed by Coppels along with Jon Hill, executive director of Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum; Sarah Leahy, business development manager for Visit Florida’s northwest region; and Wilhite—all said they were overwhelmed by the amount of work accomplished on March 29 by the volunteers.
“We had no idea how fast these people would work,” said Wilhite. “We were told to have extra projects available during the day because of how fast Tourism Cares people worked but we never expected this.”
Coppels said it would have taken the small, eight-member Lighthouse Museum staff seven years (and an estimates $25,000) to accomplish what Tourism Cares did at the event. Beckham and the volunteers thanked Brad Finkle, president of the travel insurance company Trip Mate, based in Kansas City, for being the anchor sponsor of the Pensacola event. The Crowne Plaza Pensacola Grand Hotel provided group rates for the volunteers. A festive opening reception, was hosted in Pensacola’s Seville Quarter, a 19th-century cigar factory converted in 1967 into a multi-restaurant, entertainment and living museum complex showcasing Pensacola’s maritime and aviation history.
A farewell party was hosted by Landshark Landing, the Margaritaville Hospitality entertainment venue on Pensacola Beach.