Florida's Culture Coast: Q&A With Judy Lisi

Looking at the data from various studies sponsored by Americans for the Arts, it is fair to say that the arts and culture industry in the Tampa Bay region packs an enormous punch –- more than $640 million annually from the nonprofit side alone and conservative estimates of 35,000 jobs to the combined economies of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sarasota counties. 

With truly a wealth of cultural offerings, the region ought to stake its claim in the sun and brand itself as Florida's Culture Coast, says Judy Lisi, president and CEO of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

83 Degrees interviews the thought leader about her vision and what she sees as the potential for Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota.

83 Degrees: How would you describe your vision of Florida's "Culture Coast"? 

Judy Lisi: We have so many high-level arts organizations from museums to performing arts to opera to ballet. We've invested in developing this. Now we need to market it to cultural tourists. Not just for cultural tourists, but for business development as well. That's were we need to take a look at re-identifying our area. We have real cultural assets here –- more than anywhere else people go for the sun -- that simply need to be packaged and marketed. All within a 45-50 minute drive. 

The notion is how we take that and market it out. We can attract new tourists that haven’t been here before and new businesses because we will develop the reputation as the cultural coast. 

83D: How did this idea come about?

JL: It was one of those notions that evolve over time. We are the largest performing arts center south of the Kennedy Center so we do attract people from all 50 states and other countries, and we are the largest cultural organization in Florida. A couple of years ago our opera company wanted to create a festival concept for their opera program because we have many tourists that come here for the winter from Canada and Europe and they are big advocates of opera. We got a grant from the [Florida] Tourist Development Council to develop some marketing for this international cultural opera festival. 

As we were going through it, we said: You know, we should put [together] all the other offerings that we have in the Tampa Bay region. Sure it's great if we they can come to the Performing Arts Center -- we have five theaters here -- but what about all the other offerings? So in the back of the program we put all the other things to do –- not even all of them -- but what we could fit. We put travel planning, and then us, and then the Orchestra, Children's Museum, Plant Museum, History Center, Tampa Theatre, Museum of Fine Arts in St. Pete, Chihuly, Dalí, the Holocaust Museum, St. Pete Opera, the Museum of Photographic Arts …and we said, 'oh my gosh!' We have more high quality arts than almost anybody! And I’m from New York!  

So that's when we came up with this notion. And I'm kind of dedicating my final years here to how do we how do we develop from a marketing perspective all that we have to offer here for this community. 

83D: How do you make it happen? 

JL: Right now people talk about St. Pete or Sarasota or Tampa, but if you put it together, it's huge! And they are all within an hour of each other. We all need to think of it as we are bigger than ourselves alone. Sounds simple, but it's not because arts groups traditionally are very territorial. It's funny, I'm from New York, and it's not like that there. When I came down here, I was really surprised because I was on the Broadway League for years and years, and they all work together to attract tourists. With that said, I do think it's getting better. We just need to turn it into a reality.

83D: Who should take leadership on this? 

JL: The visitor and convention bureaus. Their sole purpose is to attract visitors and tourism here. Their operations are in place already – they do it for the sun, for the beaches, for sports, but not for culture. Even if they wanted to say we have it all and include culture, that would be great! This is an aggregation, adding on to what they are already doing. 

83D: What are the first steps? 

JL: Here is the thing. If the Tampa, St. Pete and Sarasota visitor's agencies could come together under the banner of the "Culture Coast'' -- that is just my working title, someone else can come up with a better brand -- and have a serious marketing campaign, they can attract new cultural tourists to the community. 

Cultural tourists come here for the sun. These people spend money, they stay longer and they go back to their businesses and say, 'Tampa Bay has so much culture I never knew! The real estate is less expensive, the weather is great, my company is going to move, maybe I should think about that.'  It all feeds into it. 

What can make us unique and special? They can get it all here! The sun, the beaches, the amusement parks, and great culture.  

If the three agencies got together, it could be a powerhouse. 

83D: What are the biggest obstacles or challenges to such a re-branding?

JL: The hardest thing is always the fact that people who understand the power of culture, get it. The people who don't see it, just don't get it. They get sports, they get the sun, but if they don't understand culture, they’re probably not the kind of people who go to major cities to find out what's happening. 

Also, we are three cities. If we were one, it would be different. Our geography works against us sometimes. It's still one big demographic area, we just have to overcome it. It's all here but we haven't intentionally branded ourselves. 

There is an opportunity since we have all these great places, and we've invested in them, we need to re-identify, package and differentiate ourselves. 

But like everything else, the more you talk about it, and the more other people talk about it, means the buzz is out there and other people are making it their buzz.

Kendra Langlie is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
Signup for Email Alerts