Fishing tournament planned in Okeechobee

OKEECHOBEE — Sharie Turgeon of Okeechobee County Tourism Development (TDC) had good news for the Okeechobee County Commission’s Nov. 9 meeting.

The good news: “We have another great event coming.”

She said a FLW Costa series tournament is planned out of the Scott Driver boat ramps in January.

Okeechobee County last hosted this tournament two years ago, and it attracted 500 anglers, with a waiting list, she said.

“They bring a phenomenal number of people,” she said.

“Fishing tournaments are a huge economic driver for our community,” said Mrs. Turgeon.

While the runoff from Hurricane Irma has pushed the lake above the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule maximum of 15.5 feet, the water is clear, she said.

“Fishing is a little tough due to the high water levels but they are still catching quality fish,” she said.

“We apparently still have a problem with some of the hotels in this community understanding the economic benefit these tournaments bring here and the concept of charging more for rooms than what they should be charging,” said Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs.

“We have worked with the chamber of commerce in trying to get people to come here. We have worked with Visit Florida and tried to work with the hotels. They refused to come to the meeting,” he said.

“I met a regional director of the Florida Restaurant Lodging Association (FRLA),” said Ms. Turgeon.

She said the FRLA representative offered to come to Okeechobee to discuss the issues with the local hotel and restaurant owners. Mrs. Turgeon said working with the chamber, they sent out 32 personal invitations, and also contacted 13 hotel owners.

She said they had to cancel the event because they did not have a single RSVP.

“We have seen some of these hotels, their rates seemed pretty ludicrous,” said Chairman Burroughs. “One hotel was charging over $300 for one night,” he said.

Mrs. Turgeon said some of the tournament sponsors were not able to stay in the local hotels.

Chairman Burroughs said Pier II has been working with the tournaments to offer reasonable rates.

Mrs. Turgeon said the tournaments bring business not just to hotels but also to restaurants and other businesses. When a family comes down for a tournament, some family members may not fish and they will look for other things to do. If due to high hotel prices in Okeechobee, they stay in a nearby town, Okeechobee loses all of that revenue.

“If the hotels are expensive, people know they can drive 40 minutes and find a much cheaper hotel,” she said.

Chairman Burroughs said as the community grows, new hotels will come in and provide more competition will make pricing more competitive.

He said there was an issue about a year ago with an event at Quail Creek. The Okeechobee hotels were charging an enormous amount of money, he said. The mileage from Quail Creek was the same to Fort Pierce as to downtown Okeechobee, he said. The shooters opted to stay in Fort Pierce instead of Okeechobee.

“It’s hard to change the mindset,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper. “The mindset is ‘we don’t make any money the whole year, so when the tournaments are here we are going to jam it because that is going to carry us through the hard time.”

The reputation of the local hotels as “price gougers” can keep events out of the community, he said.

“We cannot regulate the hotels,” said Mrs. Turgeon. “We are not trying to blacklist anyone. We want them all to succeed.”

She said anytime a tournament makes an agreement with a hotel as a partner, they include that information online, and the TDC shares all of that information as well.

Chairman Burroughs said the TDC has to work with the hotels who are willing to help the events.

“I think when Bass Pro builds their facility here, we will see other businesses coming here,” said Commissioner Culpepper.

Chairman Burroughs said Air B ‘n B is also adding competition to hotels. He said he knows anglers who rent a place in Buckhead Ridge for a week or two weeks. Mrs. Turgeon said she recently learned there are 21 properties in Okeechobee listed on Air B ‘n B.

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