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Tourism takeaways: Be kind; look into new ways
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SEBRING — Since returning to full services, local restaurants have had supply problems and labor difficulties, and it has impacted their ability to serve customers.

One manager reportedly got a sandwich thrown at them, said Casey Hartt, lead marketer for the Tourist Development Council, which held roundtable seminars on helping local businesses attract out-of-town visitors.

Unless conditions improve for restaurants, Hartt said, some have talked about shutting down rather than have customers mad at them for slow service or missing menu items.

The good news, she said, is that other aspects of local tourism — sports venues, hotels/motels, events organizers and retail stores — have all reported good business since tourism has returned to Highlands County.

Hartt attended Tuesday’s seminars at the Greater Sebring Chamber of Commerce to share information and gather input from local tourism-based businesses on how the TDC, doing business as “VisitSebring,” can help.

Attendance was good at the day-long series of sessions, she said, which started with agritourism, then art and culture, hotels and accommodations and ending with restaurants.

VisitSebring has also hosted various other stakeholder meetings with fishing tournament directors, nature attractions, the Citrus Golf Trail, event organizers and pickleball enthusiasts, with plans to host additional stakeholder meetings as needed.

Hotels, Hartt said, haven’t had as many staffing issues as restaurants, but still have had supply problems, such as with sundry items like miniature soaps and shampoos for each room.

For restaurants, things are not “back to normal,” as people might believe, Hartt said. Floridians take it for granted, she said, that a favorite eatery will be open for full dining, with a full menu and fully staffed, especially because Florida reopened earlier than other places.

“It was such a pronounced problem, it took over [the seminar],” Hartt said.

Restaurants have had supply problems from not being able to get major food items, like the catch of the day, or just the basic ingredients needed to complete recipes and fill out their menus.

Of course, they also have staffing issues. What restaurateurs told Hartt is that those issues vary greatly from need for child care, to a lack of reliable transportation and just the sheer number of people unavailable.

At least one local place created a child care area in the back of the restaurant, so workers can bring their babies and toddlers to watch them while they work, Hartt said. That’s just one place. Others are trying to get creative.

“A lot of owners said it was easier during lockdown,” Hartt said: Restaurants could do take out and delivery only, with less staff and less need to maintain the dining room. “In ‘normal times,’ it’s not an easy job. They’re asking people to be patient.”

That means that cooking times, getting food to the table and refills on drinks and rolls might take a bit longer. It means the ability to roll in off the road, get a table quickly, get served in 15-20 minutes and get back on the road in an hour might take more time, a lot more.

“I ordered a pizza at 4 o’clock to get it by 6,” Hartt said. “When they cook it is up to them.”

She suggested others can use that same method, by utilizing mobile applications to reserve a table, order a meal, check the menu options or other pre-meal planning to help a restaurant meet their needs ahead of time.

If all else fails, call around to see what’s on the menu, what’s not, what are the wait times and how much of a crowd there is.

Agritourist forum

Tuesday’s other major takeaway, Hartt said, came from agritourism partners who want to attract people to tour their facilities and want to give them a full experience while running a working farm, grove or ranch.

Hartt said members of that segment of tourism want to have an expanded forum to talk about the challenges and possible solutions to bringing in more visitors, even expanding into a tourist venue if they haven’t already.

“Any additional revenue can keep their land in agriculture,” Hartt said.

Immersed in culture

AVON PARK — A group of Avon Park youth spent this past Tuesday morning experiencing the “first ever” History and Culture Day at the Peter Powell Roberts Museum of Art & Cultural Center, the Avon Park Public Library, the Avon Park Depot Museum and the Heartland Cultural Alliance.

On Tuesday, June 22, The Boys & Girls Club of Highlands County took a group of 40 kids from their Avon Park location to experience art and culture in the heart of the City of Charm. The idea for the collaboration between the Heartland Cultural Alliance (HCA) and The Boys & Girls Club of Highlands County came about through a coordination between Janice Rearick, operations director at The Boys & Girls Club, and Gaylin Thomas, HCA president.

“I met Gaylin at a Chamber meeting and she wanted to know what HCA could do for the Boys & Girls Club,” said Rearick. Under Thomas’ guidance, History and Culture Day became part of The Boys and Girls Club summer program. Rearick said it was a cooperative effort between four strong cultural “compass points” with the Peter Powell Roberts Museum of Art & Cultural Center, the Avon Park Public Library, the Avon Park Depot Museum and the Heartland Cultural Alliance.

“Gaylin really took the leadership on that,” said Rearick.

Bari Lotts, librarian at the Avon Park Public Library, created the schedule. “Everything pulled together beautifully,” Rearick said.

Each “station” leader was an expert in their field. This team of experts brought each group into their world; the world of art, the world of trains, the world of books and the world of exploration.

The 40 kids were divided into three groups: the library, the library’s meeting space and the Peter Powell Roberts Museum. At the Depot Museum, Elaine Levey gave a guided tour. In the library, Bari Lotts read to the kids, took questions and allowed them to explore the library. In the meeting space of the library, the kids painted their own canvas with palm trees, sand and water under the direction of Judy Nicewicz. Over at the PPR Museum, Carol Dutton and Natalee Kovens led the adventure with the kids watching a Youtube video on museum manners and how an art gallery works, then they played a game of “eye spy” in which they searched for interesting things within Peter Powell Roberts’ paintings.

“It gave them a chance to really look at the paintings,” Rearick said.

Each group were given 45 minutes at each station, then 30 minutes for lunch in the Depot Museum dining car. “Each group was just the right size to get individual attention,” said Rearick.

With the success of this first event, The Boys & Girls Club of Highlands County now looks forward to doing a similar event in Sebring. “We’re really thrilled it worked out so nicely,” said Rearick. “We are going to do the same thing in Sebring with the Sebring Public Library, Sebring Historical Society, Highlands Lakeside Theatre, Museum of the Arts and the Highlands Art League in July. One day we will have a Club again in Lake Placid and do the same there too.”

Thanks to a very generous library donor, every kid walked away with a book of their own.

Thomas is super proud of what the HCA and the Boys & Girls Club of Highlands County have accomplished together.

“This is HCA’s dream to be a facilitator and create opportunities for art and culture in the communities from the kids on up.”

FHP get wrong man for 2007 DUI fatal crash

SEBRING — The Florida Highway Patrol and U.S. Marshals thought Wednesday, after 14 years, they had found and arrested the man wanted for two counts of DUI vehicular manslaughter.

The only problem is that they have the wrong man. He’s a fugitive, apparently, but not from Florida, and not for the 2007 traffic deaths of Danny and Patricia McCown of Avon Park.

The man, who identified himself as 43-year-old Brian Dale Andrews of Frostproof, turned out to be Ernest McBride, who has active warrants in Arkansas and Missouri. The men had similar physical characteristics, but FHP troopers said Friday that fingerprint comparisons proved that he was not Andrews.

Andrews faces two felony charges of DUI manslaughter, two counts of driving while license is suspended or revoked involving a death and one count of DUI property damage. After the crash, FHP found he had a blood-alcohol content of 0.315, nearly four times the legal limit.

At 5:35 p.m. June 30, 2007, on U.S. 27 in Polk County, just north of County Line Road and the county line with Highlands County, the couple was en route to their home in Avon Park. The McGowns, both 59, had just had their 33rd wedding anniversary the day before the wreck and had gone shopping that day in Lake Wales for a gift for their granddaughter’s upcoming birthday. They were natives of Warren County, Kentucky, who had been in Florida for many years.

FHP reported that Andrews, northbound on U.S. 27 in a 1992 white Cadillac, lost control and entered the southbound lanes. The front of his car hit the front of the McCowns’ car — a silver Chevrolet HHR — killing them and sending his car into another southbound vehicle.

He did not show up at his arraignment, and FHP troopers had been looking for him for 14 years when they were tipped off that Andrews might be in an area southwest of Mexico City. It was there they found and captured the man claiming to be him.

FHP continues to search for Andrews. Anyone with information is urged to contact the FHP at 813-558-1800, their own local law enforcement or Crime Stoppers at www.heartlandcrimestoppers.com.