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The Good Life: Smaller Towns Get More Tourists

A part of what most of America knows as the Florida Panhandle has a closer-to-home nickname: “The Forgotten Coast.”

That is a misnomer.

The area is chiefly Franklin County almost directly south of the state capital of Tallahassee. It includes four communities that, by any measure, are smallish. From west to east, they are Apalachicola, population about 2,200; St. George Island, a barrier island that is 28 miles long but less than a mile wide, with just 800 or so permanent residents; Eastpoint, 2,300; Carrabelle, 2,500. The entire county is listed at just below 12,000 in population.

In addition, the “Forgotten Coast” moniker, chiefly used as an identifier for tourists, stretches from Mexico Beach on the west (brutally victimized two years ago by Hurricane Michael) to Alligator Point, close to where the “Big Bend” curves down into Florida proper.

By comparison with that fast-growing fat-finger peninsula part of Florida that most of us think of as the Sunshine state, the “Forgotten Coast” is an afterthought.

Or so we thought.

By comparison, our hometown of Brookville in Pennsylvania has 3,900 people and its surrounding Jefferson County holds more than 45,000 people. That is a comparative metropolis, although those of us who live there call it a lightly populated hunk of very rural west central Pennsylvania, halfway between Pittsburgh and Erie.

Brookville wraps itself around Interstate 80, one of the most heavily traveled interstate highways in the nation and a trucking thoroughfare linking Chicago with New York City. I-80 is within Brookville’s borough limits.

Apalachicola, on the other hand, is 30 miles south of the nearest interstate, I-10 that links Florida’s heavily populated east coast and Jacksonville with the delta country around New Orleans.

Being that far away, it would seem that few people would visit the “Forgotten Coast,” right?

Nope.

In three years of counting, my wife and I have found license plates each year from 48 or more of the contiguous United States, plus anywhere from three to seven Canadian Provinces and, once, even from Puerto Rico.

The “where” of where we counted in Apalachicola invited a comparison/contrast with Brookville.

On our most recent visit, in just four days, we counted license plates from 23 states and Quebec, Canada. Most were in the parking lots of Apalachicola’s two grocery stores, the delightfully named Piggly Wiggly market and the Gulfstream IGA market.

Brookville also has two grocery stores, the Giant Eagle and Mike’s Comet. When we returned home, I deliberately visited both stores’ parking lots each day for a week. In that time, I found license plates from 11 different states.

One might think that, given the presence of two large military bases nearby, Tyndall and Eglin, military travelers account for most of the out-of-state vehicles.

But travelers rarely stop at small-town grocery stores located along what has not been a major highway (Route 98) since Interstate 10 was built a half-century ago.

No, it is visitors who flock to Apalachicola, from all over the country.

They come in small numbers: Wisconsin here, Manitoba there. Many rent homes on St. George Island, which is to lower Georgia and Alabama what the New Jersey “downashore” (that is Phillyspeak) coast is to eastern Pennsylvania, a sand-and-sea mecca. Others rent in the three mainland communities, especially during the winter months of January, February and March.

Those “snowbirds” do not bring the largest influx of visitors, however. In summer, crowds come from the Atlanta metroplex. That is understandable, given the Forgotten Coast’s plentiful beaches and rental homes.

What surprised us, however, was the wintertime influx. In just those four days mentioned above, the plates told of visitors from Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Whew!

A whole lot of people remember the “Forgotten Coast!”

In Apalachicola’s case, that is a good thing. Nearby paper mills and other manufacturing factories closed quite a while ago. That leaves tourism as the largest non-governmental category as a source of income from the permanent residents. They welcome visitors in a bucolic, laid-back setting reminiscent of the 1960s fictional TV town of Mayberry, the setting for the then wildly popular “The Andy Griffith Show.” There is little of the touristy spend-it-here hustling that gilds the Orlando/Disney World area or the more southern resorts along Florida’s two coasts, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, though the entire “Forgotten Coast” stretches along the same Gulf.

Winter temperatures are shorter than the 80s/90s found in South Florida, and that is fine with us. We no longer are swim/surf people. Instead, we mosey along the sand at the seashores.

So does most of America, in the same sparing fashion as one might apply Tabasco to fresh-caught grouper, judging by those license plates.

For Brookville, Jefferson County and the rest of the newly-named “Pennsylvania Wilds,” the trick is to figure out how to get more of those Interstate 80 travelers to sprinkle themselves among our hills, forests and river valleys as tourists. If we do, our “Wilds” could become as economy-boosting as is Florida’s “Forgotten” nice little ka-chinger.

Ah, if we could only move the Gulf of Mexico up a bit… .

¯¯¯

Denny Bonavita is a former editor and publisher at daily and weekly newspapers in western Pennsylvania. He winters in Apalachicola. Email: denny2319@windstream.net.

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