By Jeff Barwick
Jeff Barwick enjoying a swim at the Pahokee Waterfront in 1959.
Back in 2000, when [Hendry] County formed tourism, I was at the Clewiston Chamber. We were very interested in tourism. Back then, I went around making presentations for the bed tax, which would produce revenue for tourism projects, and it passed. I loved that work. I was on two boards of Visit Florida. They had great programs and they did special things. We brought writers here from magazines, we’d take them on tours and three months later we had an article in travel magazines. All we had to do was find them a place to stay for a few nights and meals.
We had this consultant specializing in rural tourism from Lakeland, Jim Brantley. He did a windshield tour of Hendry County and afterward told me: “Jeff, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The one thing you have in Hendry County is Lake Okeechobee. That’s your asset. You can develop other things, but the lake is your thing.” We brought more fishing tournaments into Roland & Mary Ann Martin Marina. The fishing’s good, particularly in February when it’s colder up North. We increased that tourism. We also did some other nature tourism with the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail around the top of the dike. We had maps, places to see and stay.
Fishing is still pretty good on the lake. It’s more than bass. Fly fishing is a big deal. So is pan fishing. But, the potential of nature tourism is big, too. People talk about going to the Everglades. Get out on Lake Okeechobee, and you’ll see the same things that you’ll find in the Everglades. You get out in the water and back up in all that grass, it’s beautiful. Lake Okeechobee is not your typical lake. You have to get out on the lake to really appreciate it and that costs money. We found a boat operator with a boat who took about 50 people out on tours. The boat was usually full. During my last year at the chamber, we added boat tours to the Sugarland Tours. We took 6,000 people out. I don’t think they’re running that many people now. It’s a different program.
I think tourism is a facet that has some potential. It takes money, of course, but you need people with a vision to build tourism here in the Glades. As a community, The Glades is unique. While we may have different cities, like Belle Glade and Clewiston, we still are “The Glades.” Most of the people raised around here, that’s how we think. We have some commonality. It’ll take vision and leadership, and I think you can get it from the city governments. Tourism in Palm Beach County is all about Palm Beach County and the coast. That’s where the money’s at. There’s not enough power in Hendry County to pull tourism together. So, I think it’s up to the cities and visionary entrepreneurs who could then present plans to the Tourism Development Councils and gain their backing and bed tax dollars for new projects.
Where’s the potential for tourism growth here in The Glades? The interest in railroads in this country is unbelievable, especially in steam-engine railroading. U.S. Sugar has a steam engine and some rail cars that they’re cleaning up to run for tours. The company bought that old rail engine back in the 30s and 40s. They found it out in the Midwest and brought it back on a rail car, in parts. You could see the framework of it. They took that thing apart and rebuilt it. These guys that work in the sugar mill, they can build anything. It’s amazing what they can do. So, they got the steam engine running. I understand they found another one that they’re going to bring back, and they’re going to do tours. That engine is on a Facebook page – No. 148. When they advertise that there’s an event featuring the train, you’d be surprised at the crowds that show up. They eat this stuff up. When you get that going and taking people out into the sugarcane fields to explain farming, that’s going to be a big deal.
I still think tourism can bring benefits to The Glades, but nothing just falls in your lap. Building any industry is hard. If it was easy to do, it would have already happened by itself. However, people are looking for something different. They’ve already done Disney; they’ve been to the beach. It’s time to figure out how to make The Glades a must-see destination in Florida.
Jeff Barwick grew up in Pahokee and currently lives in Clewiston. He served as president and CEO of the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Hendry County Tourism Development Council.