City plans 'good show' for football fans

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  • | 12:00 p.m. December 27, 2001
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by Mike Sharkey

Staff Writer

This year’s Toyota Gator Bowl between the Florida State Seminoles and Virginia Tech Hokies is a rematch of the 1999 national championship game. The Seminoles won their second title by outlasting the Hokies 46-29.

The game featured Tech’s freshman sensation quarterback Michael Vick, FSU’s Chris Weinke (the 2000 Heisman Trophy winner) and Peter Warrick and a host of All-Americans on both sidelines. While this year’s game lacks both the superstars and the national significance, it will be a financial boom to Jacksonville. A full stadium will also mean an opportunity for thousands of people to leave Jacksonville with a positive impression of the city.

Virginia Tech fans traditionally travel well and with a strong fan base in Jacksonville, Seminole fans won’t be hard to find. Despite playing in last year’s Gator Bowl, all indications are there will be plenty of Virginians in town this weekend.

Kitty Ratcliffe, the president of the Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau, said she has received mostly positive feedback from Gator Bowl fans, regardless of which team they support.

Having Tech in for back-to-back games may prove to be harmful to ticket sales to Hokies fans, but not much.

“Virginia Tech was here last year and we drew a bigger crowd,” said Ratcliffe, noting that fewer tickets were bought this year by Tech fans. “But, we are really pleased with the turnout this year. They have a great time down here.”

Ratcliffe said the Gator Bowl Association and the City’s Office of Special Events should get a lot of credit for helping put on a good show for the out-of-towners.

“They organize a lot of activities for them,” said Ratcliffe. “It’s much more than just a game. There’s the fireworks, the parade and the pep rally for the fans. They don’t come in and experience just a game.”

If tee sheets are any indication, golf is on the agenda for plenty of Gator Bowl fans. Many FSU devotees play golf, but the Virginia Tech fans are noted for playing a lot of golf when they come to town. That shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the PGA Tour’s headquarters are in Ponte Vedra Beach, the World Golf Village is a short, easy ride down I-95 and there are many public and semi-private courses in the area.

Although none of the courses will know the exact economic impact the game will have on them until after they tally their figures, it’s easy to see that having tens of thousands of tourists in town will help.

“We’re pretty busy this weekend,” said Doug Ramsey, sales and marketing manager at Windsor Parke Golf Club. “I’d love to say it’s all because of the game, but they [golfers] don’t show up with their tickets. The weekend tee sheet is pretty busy and Monday [New Year’s Eve] is busy as well.”

Having a major college football bowl game on New Year’s Day also creates a little extra havoc at Jacksonville International Airport. In addition to the normal holiday travelers, many Virginia Tech fans will fly into Jacksonville, rent cars and drive to their hotels.

Laurene Carson, chief of communications for the Jacksonville Airport Authority, said only the individual airlines know for sure who is coming from where for New Year’s. However, Carson has been told that incoming flights from Roanoke, Va. and Charlotte, N.C. (the two main originations that Hokies fans would be using) are full over the next few days.

“We’re busy because of the holiday travelers,” said Carson. “We’re busy through the day after New Year’s. We’re hearing in general terms that the planes are booked solid.”

If there’s one specific area of town that benefits from a crowded downtown it’s the Landing. Unlike Jaguars game days when 65,000-plus people are downtown for half a day, the Gator Bowl means thousands of people will be in the downtown area for a few days.

“It’s definitely a big weekend,” said Landing general manager John Kiddy. “We anticipate one of our biggest weekends ever.”

Kiddy, who has been with the Landing for five years, said there are two major factors that may combine to help Landing merchants set records and rebound slightly from a slow year. The fact that New Year’s Day falls on a Tuesday creates a four-day weekend for many people. Also having a relatively new, 900-plus room hotel a half-mile down the St. Johns River will help.

“The Adam’s Mark means there will be 4,000-5,000 more people downtown,” said Kiddy. “Last year was a good year because we had two good out-of-town teams [Virginia Tech and Clemson] for the game. The difference this year will be, we may have the same number of people in town, but because of the Adam’s Mark — and we saw this during the Georgia-Florida game —that many more people will be near the property.”

Once the holidays and the game are over, local merchants and officials will be able to sit down and look at the numbers. Ratcliffe said the bottom line is always a concern, but making sure folks enjoy Jacksonville and want to come back, game or not, is also a top priority. Although there is no direct feedback system in place for tourists once they have left, there is a way for the CVB to gauge people’s impressions.

“We don’t survey fans for that specific purpose, but we do have a lot come by our center at the Landing,” said Ratcliffe. “That feedback helps us a lot.”

Ratcliffe said most fans who come for the annual Gator Bowl leave with a positive impression of Jacksonville. Although it looks like it may be relatively cool for this year’s game, there is always the possibility that it can be sunny and 80 degrees. That kind of weather is music to a golfer’s ear and can even get a few on the beach seeking a mid-winter tan.

“They certainly like the weather,” said Ratcliffe. “They like to spend New Year’s Eve weekend in Florida. They also like the proximity of the stadium to the other activities. The biggest complaint is not enough hotels downtown for them all to stay downtown. They have to stay at other hotels and that creates a lot of traffic.”

Ratcliffe said local hotels are doing very well this year, and it’s not just the resorts and Adam’s Mark Hotel.

“There are a good number of hotels at the beach and they are reasonably priced,” said Ratcliffe. “I understand the Amelia Island Plantation is full and so is the Comfort Inn Oceanfront.”