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Hernando hires two companies to assist with marketing plan

Published Sep. 4, 2014

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County commissioners have voted to move ahead with a marketing plan for the county, one that could include the popular Weeki Wachee mermaids.

In June, commissioners heard marketing pitches from five companies, two of which tied for first place when commissioners voted their preference. The commission asked Russ Wetherington, the assistant county administrator for general services, to negotiate with the two top firms, Gold & Associates, based in the Jacksonville area, and Business Development Strategies of Brooksville.

Late last month, Wetherington prepared a recommendation in which he explained that his team had talked with both companies and decided that Gold & Associates was its top pick "because their proposal provides for an all-encompassing strategy that includes evaluation, research and planning."

"It is important to understand our community assets and how they are perceived, who our visitor is today, as well as the visitors we wish to attract, before embarking on the development and implementation of specific marketing strategies," he wrote to commissioners. "Gold & Associates' research and discovery process will provide the basis for the strategic marketing plan and tools for the county."

Gold & Associates proposed a $75,000 annual budget for its services.

The company has done marketing work for numerous Florida counties and cities, as well as national companies such as GEICO, Domino's Pizza and UPS.

Although that was the written recommendation, during the commission meeting Wetherington said he had an addendum, which recommended that the county also hire Business Development Strategies.

The local firm, owned by Tom Barnette, had pitched the trademark Florida Mermaid Trail or Mermaid Trail as the centerpiece of its marketing plan. The county agreed to pay up to $50,000 to purchase the trademark and the websites connected with that brand, which Barnette owns.

Commissioners approved the recommendation unanimously.

After the meeting, Wetherington explained the change in plans by saying that both companies "had their pluses" and that Barnette's company would provide just one piece of the marketing pie.

"It will give us a lot more flexibility," he said.

Whether the mermaid idea will become part of the final county brand is uncertain, Wetherington said.

During his pitch to the commission, Barnette, who is in the travel business, explained that his focus was on attracting families and children. He touted his local knowledge and experience, and he said he has unique insight into Hernando County's competition for tourism and economic development.

He has served on the Hernando County Tourist Development Council, including two years as chairman. He also served for a dozen years on the Visit Florida board.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.