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Something unusual is happening in Citrus County. New visitors checking into hotels in the area north of Tampa are carrying newspaper clippings from their home states that tout places like the seven-square-mile county seat of Inverness as vacation destinations.

The town of about 7,000 residents, incorporated in 1919, shares the spotlight with smaller neighbors Homosassa and Crystal River as one of 19 areas that agreed to be guinea pigs for a new Downtowns & Small Towns marketing program launched in April by Visit Florida, the state's official tourism marketing agency. The idea is to lure tourists with more than just theme parks and beaches so they'll return to Florida again and again. This effort grew out of the agency's 2001 "Culturally Florida" program, which showcased the state's culture, history and nature, says Kerri Post, Visit Florida's vice president of new product development.

Another cornerstone of the marketing campaign is a 16-page, four-color direct mail piece inserted into 1.3 million daily newspapers in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Boston and Tampa/St. Petersburg. Copies also have been distributed to a targeted list of 125,000 American Express card members. Visit Florida kicked in $500,000 for the program. Corporate and industry partners pitched in as well, Post says.

Both American Express and Delta, another corporate sponsor, are offering discounts to help track where these visitors are from and which Florida towns they're choosing.

A free round-trip contest on the mailer's front page is another way Visit Florida is gauging the program's effectiveness. Similar contests have attracted about 9,000 responses in the past, Post says. This one brought more than 27,000.

Plans call for release of a training handbook for the program this month and a two-day seminar in Delray Beach in October. Ideally, Post says, municipalities will involve not just their tourism marketers but also people from their planning and transportation departments, arts agencies and merchants associations. That's important so downtowns can take the marketing and beautification efforts they're already using and tie in the tourism angle.

It's working in Inverness, which had just finished redeveloping its historic downtown with landscaping, streetscaping, lighting and other improvements, says Mary Craven, director of the Citrus County Visitors and Convention Bureau. The Citrus County towns saw spikes in inquiries right away by telephone and over the internet. Now that visitors are streaming in, the locals are pretty excited.

"What we're starting to see is a real buildup of synergy," Craven says. "Even more important is an increase in the pride. I did not think it would be embraced the way it's been. I'm just overwhelmed and thrilled by the way it's been marketed, by the way the local towns have taken this on."

Downtowns & Small Towns Participants
Citrus County (Crystal River, Homosassa and Inverness)
Delray Beach
Florida Keys
Fort Lauderdale
Hendry County (Clewiston and LaBelle)
Martin County (Jensen Beach and Stuart)
Miami (downtown Miami and Miami Beach)
Naples and Marco Island
New Smyrna Beach
Palm Beach County (Boca Raton, Jupiter, Lake Worth and West Palm Beach)
Pure Water Wilderness (Cedar Key)
St. Augustine
St. Petersburg/Clearwater (St. Petersburg, Dunedin and Tarpon Springs)
Sarasota (Sarasota and Venice)
Tampa (Plant City and Tampa)

Visitor Trends
Florida tourists who are repeat visitors: 92%
Visit historic sites: 50%
Participate in cultural activities: 49%
Experience nature activities: 70%
Source: Visit Florida

Program Criteria
Clearly visible revitalization
Active residential component
Lodging, shopping, dining, entertainment, arts and culture
Distinct architecture
Nationally recognized historic districts and/or designated Main Street
Pedestrian-friendly downtown
Access to nature