Hendry County BOCC OKs tourism ads in 4-1 vote

CLEWISTON — Hendry County commissioners voted 4-1 to sign a one-year advertising contract with local firm Everglades Marketing Jan. 8 after they’d held back on it in December and requested more information.

Commissioner Karson Turner this time was the one voting no as the board OK’d the Tourism Development Council’s recommended expenditure of $12,995 on an arrangement the firm struck with Digital Concourse Network for ads at the Punta Gorda Airport. It will place printed brochures touting Hendry attractions on shelves and a large stationary canvas sign marketing Hendry County inside the terminal, plus rolling ads on electronic screens at five locations elsewhere at the airport.

The board voted after a presentation from Daniel Peregrin, who lives in Hendry and owns the River’s Edge Hotel in LaBelle, and Bianca Ross, an employee of his who is marketing director for Everglades Marketing (EM). As a TDC member who also has a construction company, Mr. Peregrin explained that he’d created EM “to really separate our marketing from other businesses that I run.”

He apologized for confusion that arose when the board voted 4-1 on Dec. 11, with Commissioner Darrell Harris voting no, to reject both the EM contract and a separate request for $5,000 to help advertise a New Year’s Eve party at Mr. Peregrin’s hotel intended to help lure new investment to Hendry County. “I understand there were some items missing from your packet that were important in making that decision,” he said.

“EM proposed the idea to the TDC board of advertising at the Punta Gorda Airport, and … after traveling through there I thought it was a good opportunity for the county to have a presence because so many travelers go in and out of there.” He said the idea was to help the TDC with advertising attractions all over Hendry County and stated that EM would not profit from the contract.

In fact, Ms. Ross stated that the total would be EM’s usual $20,000 price for a one-year contract and that her boss said he would cover the portion beyond the $13K for a six-month deal. Mr. Harris — the county board’s liaison serving on the TDC — confirmed later that council members had balked at the full price, so Mr. Peregrin suggested they just cover the six-month contract price and said he’d kick in the rest to give the TDC a one-year advertising commitment.

“It was a very positive meeting,” he said, adding that “when we decided to go forward, we were actually approached by Billie Swamp Safari. They were even going to help us print the brochures. Everybody had a buy-in, not just me; a lot of the members of the TDC board got invested in it one way or another.”

Commissioner Harris pointed out that the TDC is evenly split with five members from Clewiston and four from LaBelle. “Our biggest thing for TDC is fishing, the lake and the river, the birders and that’s about it. So we’re trying to come up with other ideas and other avenues to bring people in. If we do this for a year and nothing’s changed, then we need to not do it again.”

Board Chairman Mitchell Wills praised Mr. Peregrin and family, who he said have “done a tremendous amount of building in LaBelle … without abatements or helping hands.” He offered to recuse himself from the vote if a personal connection of renting church property from Mr. Peregrin’s family was deemed a conflict, but County Attorney Mark Lapp said it wasn’t. And Mr. Wills added, “What I’m saying is based on what I’ve seen of them in the community.”

Commissioner Michael Swindle asked if other alternatives had been explored, such as for instance a billboard on Interstate 75. “Yes,” Mr. Peregrin replied, “but this is one of the things we felt as a group was a good investment.”

Ms. Ross said they had checked on the cost for a billboard and learned it was “$1,500 a month and up. Why Punta Gorda Airport struck us is because their traffic is steadily increasing. This year alone it went up 25 percent from last year; 1.5 million people went through that airport,” she said, adding that many are hunters, anglers and other outdoorsmen likely to be interested in Hendry’s allures.

Commissioner Turner said he didn’t think $20,000 was too much for a marketing scheme but, not knowing what was being pushed exactly, suggested perhaps doubling down, by “trying to establish Hendry as the bass fishing capital of the United States of America … I think that the ability in this $20K packet, counting your money, of us to be able to measure that return on investment is going to be difficult on to impossible. Do you have an idea how you would measure that?” he asked.

Mr. Peregrin named a few different ways of getting those metrics, such as through coupons, QR codes that people can scan for information, as well as shelf supply that would have to be replenished. He explained that he thought what EM presented to the TDC board would be “a solid base hit … (that’s) not going to improve the economy of Hendry County overnight, but we believed as a group that it would help Hendry as a whole.”

Chairman Wills said it was an example of “thinking outside the box … what have we been doing? Awful silent. Nothing. We’ve been doing nothing. So do we think outside the box, do we try marketing or do we continue to do nothing and expect a different result?” he asked commissioners.

Mr. Turner replied: “I think that while this is an effort, (it) is a half-baked cake … we’re not talking about what that’s actually going to look like as far as the final product that’s going to be pushed out. This is not a marketing plan, this is demographic analysis.” He insisted that there needed to be measures to show what EM “is anticipating for a return on investment.”

Ms. Ross stood to explain: “It was not requested of us to pitch a marketing plan either to the TDC or the (county board). Marketing plans can be a long process, and require a lot of research ahead of time so they can be complete.” She also said they can have as many digital ads run at the airport as possible, “so the whole county gets to celebrate themselves in whatever way they see fit. The brochures and things are absolutely something that the TDC and the (board) can have final approval on.”

Commissioner Swindle moved to approve the contract and to add an official waiver of Mr. Peregrin’s business relationship with the tourism council on which he serves, and it passed 4-1. “The main kicker for me is that we’ve got a personal business that’s willing to lay down the funds and to back it. I think that’s a heckuva support network, and we need to support it.”

Mr. Harris added, “Then we can look at it in a year.” The commissioner had made a statement before the discussion that he had not meant to disparage an Orlando firm the TDC previously had hired, Evok, at the Dec. 11 meeting. “In no way did I mean to suggest that Evok’s not a presentable firm or that they did a bad job,” he said. “The bottom line is that we just didn’t have the money to continue.”

Mr. Turner challenged his colleague and the TDC to “really look into how are you going to measure the return on investment,” suggesting that the attorney check up on the legality of using some of the tourism budget’s roughly $250,000 in annual revenue for capital improvements such as installing a rubber track for LaBelle High School and attracting athletic meets, plus improving civic facilities.

County Administrator Jennifer Davis said Tourism Director Emily Hunter is working on a comprehensive report to be presented in late February or March at the latest.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com

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