LaBELLE — Hendry County commissioners voted 4-1 to hold back on two matching Tourism Development Council grants to local businesses in their meeting Tuesday, Dec. 11, setting the tone early for a few other acts in which they demanded documentation to justify spending public tax dollars.
After they first approved the consent agenda at the start of their two-and-a-half-hourlong session, Commissioner Karson Turner asked whether anyone else had called to pull back two grants from the list of TDC-approved festival or tourism project sponsorships. Vice Chairwoman Emma Byrd said she’d also asked to yank and discuss a $5,000 matching grant request from The River’s Edge Motel in LaBelle for a New Year’s Eve celebration at the resort, and an $12,995 payment to Everglades Marketing for a 2019 “Punta Gorda Airport Advertising Contract” with an entity called Digital Concourse Network.
Mr. Turner asked Ms. Byrd if he could air his concerns on her behalf, and she replied, “Go ahead.” Mr. Turner questioned the $13,000 contract for the marketing. “I don’t really understand the plan, and I don’t know how we’re going to be able to assess” the results, he told TDC Director Emily Hunter. She explained that it’s a program to be run by Everglades Marketing, a Hendry company run by Bianca Ross who also operates the River’s Edge, and owned by Daniel Peregrin, a member of the TDC. A waiver of his business relationship with the provider was requested because of the financial conflict of interest.
“They are advertising for Hendry County at the Punta Gorda Airport,” which is actually in Charlotte County although many people who visit Hendry and LaBelle fly through there, she said. “They were going to advertise simply for River’s Edge Motel and also downtown LaBelle, but they came to us as a board and said, ‘Here’s an opportunity we have to market Hendry County,’ and ... they asked us if we would like to throw some money in there for Hendry County advertising as a whole.”
Commissioner Turner asked what the total amount was, and she said $20,000. Board TDC liaison Commissioner Darrell Harris said Everglades asked for that whole amount but the council agreed to only $13,000. “They took all the statistics for the airport in Punta Gorda, which people are really using now because of the ... location where the advertising would be. The only thing, you know, like we all want, is feedback on how many people are going to see that and come to Hendry County.”
Mr. Turner rebutted, “Yeah, but we always get told that on these marketing plans,” adding, “Evok (Advertising of Orlando), we spent $170,000-plus, and maybe $210,000, and they came to this chamber and told us they were going to give us this awesome brand that had a heron in it, do you all remember? And a heron is a bird that’s located in all 50 states, but that was unique to Hendry County and they’re marketing professionals. And now I’m hearing a local hotel owner, and Bianca Ross, which, I’ve never heard of Everglades Marketing ... but I don’t understand what expertise, I don’t see enough in the plan if how we’re actually going to market Hendry County.
“We’re going to give somebody $13,000 to market us, I want to know who do you have in your crosshairs, to bring here to eat, sleep and spend money and potentially relocate themselves to Hendry County.” Mr. Turner added that he didn’t see any of that in the staff report, said that “I don’t think there’s a plan associated with this, although I’d like to see that plan if there is,” and insisted it was the applicant’s job to prove that the money was or would be well spent.
“And then another $5,000 for a New Year’s Eve party that I read is going to bring 150 people to town. I could throw a heck of a party for $5,000!” he noted. The hotel has only a dozen rooms, but Ms. Ross estimated in the application it would be full and that another 20 hotel rooms would be rented in town due to the event.
Mr. Harris admitted the hiring of Evok “was a mistake,” but protested withholding business from a local contractor regardless of his business relationships and TDC membership. He also agreed with Mr. Turner’s points that marketing dollars spent on Lake Okeechobee fishing tournaments, especially those out of the Martin Marine Center resort, are a great investment. “They fill up all the hotels in Clewiston, and it’s the biggest draw in the county. So all we’re trying to do is get a little bit of a draw for the whole county. We didn’t think it was too much, if we had the funding,” Commissioner Harris explained.
Commissioner Michael Swindle spoke up to agree with Mr. Turner’s points, saying “I believe this has spurred up a great conversation that I foresee carrying on ... throughout this meeting from beginning to end, because I’ve got a lot of things highlighted that I think this is the exact conversation that I think we’re going to have. Commissioner Turner is spot on.
“I don’t have a problem supporting ... I don’t care where the event is ... but I do want to make sure that we are being responsible and wise on how we invest this money and getting the return on investment. I think it’s only fair to hold everyone’s feet to the fire,” Mr. Swindle said.
Mr. Turner made a motion to deny the $13,000 and $5,000 requests. Commissioner Swindle seconded, and the motion passed with Mr. Harris voting no. He then moved that the board approve $5,000 requested grants to the Swamp Cabbage Festival in LaBelle and the Sugar Festival in Clewiston and to deny the River’s Edge grant. The vote again was 4-1.
“We need to see some backup to show us what the county’s going to get,” summarized County Board Chairman Mitchell Wills. “Punta Gorda Airport is a major hub and it’s turning into that, but show us what we’re going to receive — the entire county, not just LaBelle.”
Mr. Turner said he’d like to hear a presentation from Everglades Marketing to justify the $13,000 contract, including “the marketing plan, and I want to pick it apart.”