Gullah-Geechee is a River-to-Sea Tour highlight
By Ron Cunningham, GLOB Correspondent
EDITOR's NOTE: Ron Cunningham is a Gainesville cyclist, Journalist, and Executive Director of Bike Florida. The Cycle Chronicler is in search of interesting, chain-link connected stories and today he talks about his recent week long bicycle tour.
Palatka is a paper mill town in transition. In an earlier century it had been a bustling port city on the St. John's River. But these days the town's sleepy riverside downtown has the look and feel of a community that time left behind.
Last Friday, Bike Florida brought 18 riders and three staffers to Palatka. It was the next to the last day of Bike Florida's week long St. John's River to the Sea Tour, and our destination for the evening was the Quality Inn, nestled up against the arching bridge - with its statuary of World War I soldiers - that spans the mighty river.
And guess what our riders discovered when they checked in? Another bicycle touring group; some 8 cyclists who were about to complete Adventure Cycling's "Southern Tier" ride from San Diego to St. Augustine.
So for that one night the hotel rented some 20-plus rooms to cyclists who had converged on Palatka from all over the country. And across the road, Angel's Diner - established in 1934 - seemed to be selling a lot of its signature one-pound burgers to folks who had burned a lot of calories that day and who planned to burn even more on the next.
Two bike groups converging on a small town in Florida on the same day. A coincidence, or a sign of the times?
To put that question in context it is worth pointing out that the good folks in Palatka have not been content to sit idly by while outside forces decide their economic destiny. For the past several years Palatka leaders have been laying plans to position their community as the major outdoor recreation destination.
They have been building rail-trails and hiking trails (greenways) and designating canoe and kayak routes (blueways) to attract exactly the sort of active travelers who arrived under their own power last Friday complements of Bike Florida and Adventure Cycling. Furthermore, Palatka is located on a stretch of river that was thoroughly explored and chronicled by America's "first naturalist," William Bartram in colonial times. And the community plans to capitalize on Bartram's travels to attract a whole other class of tourists; people who like to follow history's footsteps and immerse themselves in the local lore and culture.
In some ways, Palatka is ahead of the curve in its ambitions. Florida has always been a major tourism destination, but mostly it's been known for its beaches, theme parks, time-shares and golf courses.
Derek Hankerson, a St. Augustine-based travel writer and film producer says Florida one-dimensional approach to tourism promotion is like "leaving half the money on the table." Given the state's rich ethnic heritage, he argues, the state should be doing much more to attract Hispanics, African-Americans and others who have a desire to retrace their roots through history.
Hankerson's point about the potential of history-and-culture based tourism is well taken. On Saturday, the last day of Bike Florida's tour, our riders stopped at the small community of Armstrong - about midway between Palatka and St. Augustine - for a special end-of-ride brunch in the community's small church.
Armstrong was settled by the descents of African slaves and it is part of the National Park Service's designated "Gullah-Geechee Heritage Corridor." The community is located on a still-under development state rail-trail that will eventually run all the way from Lake City to St. Augustine, and residents there hope the trail will bring new economic vitality to their once isolated community.
"Armstrong...is hoping cyclists can give this rural community an economic boost," the news service St. Augustine.com reported last week. "With help from Bike Florida, a statewide organization that promotes bicycling, their vision may become a reality...Armstrong is looking for tour revenues to help support grants for a small grocery, café, clinic, local museum and overnight rooms.."
Far-fetched? Maybe not. Bike Florida brought just 18 riders to Armstrong last Saturday. But in March, as many as 800 riders will come through Armstrong as part of Bike Florida's 20th anniversary "Magical History Tour" that will loop from Palatka to Daytona Beach to St. Augustine and back.
Point is, Florida has barely scratched the surface when it comes to capitalizing on its ecotourism potential. Bicycle-tourism alone is a $1.5 billion a year economic activity in Wisconsin, and a $400 million annual economic generator in Oregon. Just three rail-trails in Central Florida already attract 1.7 million users a year, and if Florida could manage to connect more of its splintered greenway systems into continuous loops, the economic payoff for trailside towns and businesses could be enormous.
Bike Florida is doing its part to help make Florida a major cycling destination. And we're just getting started. The day will come when the coincidence of two different cycling groups converging on the same hotel in the same town on the same day will be called something else entirely: Business as usual.