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By Kitty Oliver

Fort Lauderdale, FL — has taken over the national spotlight as the major destination of choice for the country’s most prominent African American groups. Great year-round weather and a myriad of celebrity events and fun activities are just part of the reason. Black organizations are lured by the unique approach to tourism that also creates opportunities for them to impact the economic development of local Black communities and celebrate African American history and culture.

That’s why the National Urban League recently announced plans to convene its star-studded annual conference for the first time in Fort Lauderdale in July, 2015.

The city won out over nine other competitors due to the high profile community development programs of the Urban League of Broward County, led by President and CEO Dr. Germaine Smith-Baugh. 

The Urban League’s new state-of-the-art multipurpose Community Empowerment Center is part of the historic Black Fort Lauderdale Sistrunk Boulevard corridor, a hub of cultural and economic revitalization which includes the landmark African American Re-search Library and Cultural Center and the Midtown Business and Arts District.

In early March the American Tennis Association, the country’s oldest organization for Black tennis players, met with government officials and a construction firm regarding plans to make Greater Fort Lauderdale the permanent home for recreational tennis and the training of future professional players and to create a Black Tennis Hall of Fame to showcase historical memorabilia only seen so far in a limited way in traveling exhibitions.

The ATA, founded in 1916 in Washington, D.C., created a circuit of clubs and tournaments for Black tennis players excluded from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association. Since then, the mostly-volunteer organization, now based in Maryland, has remained in the forefront of the sport, challenging the racial barriers of segregation, cultivating promising young talent, providing a vital social network for African American professionals (notables include Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe), and influencing younger Black stars such as Serena and Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens.

According to Philadelphia oral surgeon Dr. Franklyn Scott, president of the ATA, the group is strengthening its organizational structure and “the goal is to bring African American tennis enthusiasts and players together on a regular basis to enjoy the sport in the top vacation destination for African American travelers in the U.S.” For the second year, the ATA National Tournament, now in its 96th year, will return to Fort Lauderdale July 28-Aug. 3. Over 3,000 amateur adult and youth tennis players and their families are expected to converge on the area. 

“There is so much history of African Americans in tennis but it has only been told sporadically, and a lot of people have benefited from this history,” said Dr. Scott. “Having a permanent home would be invaluable and would also bring a lot to Fort Lauderdale. I had no idea how the city had grown.  It’s a well-kept secret and this will get the word out for more people to come. We’re excited about the tournament and the idea of the sustaining of the Sistrunk community.”

The Midtown SummerFest of music and art in the Sistrunk corridor will be a part of the tournament festivities again this year in the Midtown Arts & Business Center along with programs and activities that will highlight revitalization of the historic Black community as well as ATA history.

The partnership between tourism and Black economic development is spearheaded by the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau and Albert Tucker, Vice President for Multicultural Marketing, has been leading the charge. Capitalizing on the commitment of Black professional organizations to community service, the CVB assists groups in planning projects in Fort Lauderdale’s historic Black Sistrunk Boulevard community when they convene, a move that incorporates minority economic development into minority group travel marketing to support local efforts to revitalize communities. In turn, revitalized communities will increase the appeal of the destination, attract more visitors, and boost the area’s overall economy. 

“Everything we do is about community partnerships and relationships that encourage growth,” Tucker said.  “We’re bringing tourism off the beach and back onto the Sistrunk corridor, which means economic viability to the city and community.” 

The multicultural travel market has become one of the fastest growing segments in the travel industry, he pointed out. For a long time, however, marketing to this group was not aggressively pursued by many segments of the travel industry.  Over a decade ago, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, led by President Nicki E. Grossman, recognized the area’s appeal and reputation among African American, Caribbean American and Hispanic travelers as a top business and leisure destination. Grossman created a full-service Multicultural Business Development Department within the GFLCVB specifically to market to the multicultural traveler and pursue large-scale events, groups and convention business. Multicultural participation in the tourism and convention sales market has increased by more than 40 percent with group meetings and family reunions. 

Culturally, the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County area has become one of the most diverse multi-ethnic urban areas in the country, second only to Queens County, NY with African Americans, Caribbeans and Hispanics representing over 50 percent of the population. According to population projections, the area will be the most diverse area in the country within the next decade. People of color make up over 60 percent of the 131,000 Broward residents directly employed in the hospitality industry and comprise almost a quarter of the 11 million visitors to the area each year.

In response to this increasing diversity, according to Tucker, “Everything we do is about community partnerships and relationships that encourage growth. We’re bringing tourism off the beach and back onto the Sistrunk corridor, which means economic viability to the city and community.”

A major component of the multicultural marketing plan is cultivating and maintaining relationships with local leaders and members of national organizations. As a result, according to Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Bobby DuBose, “the economic impact last year that the ATA had on the city alone was tremendous. We had over 1500 visitors using four hotels having an economic impact between $1.8 and $2 million.”

The CVB is partnering with the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in the Black tennis initiative with the ATA. Both groups have national board members who reside in South Florida.

Greater Fort Lauderdale has hosted a  wide range of African American professional organizations, including the World Youth Netball Championships with the estimated economic impact in excess of $10 million; 100 Black Men of America; the Biennial Conference of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters; the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Executives; the United States Hispanic Contractors Annual Conference; the National Bowling Association, which brought more than 10,000 bowlers and their families resulting in an economic impact of  $14.5 million; and groups of Black accountants, government officials and gospel artists. They are drawn by events such as the annual Jazz in the Gardens music festival in March featuring top national talent in jazz, R&B, hip hop and gospel when more than 30,000 visitors flock to the area. In addition, there is international cricket, soccer, and Australian rules football matches as well as world-class African American and Caribbean cultural presentations.

Black organizations are discovering that the lure of Greater Fort Lauderdale goes far beyond the entertainment – and even the enticing views of sunshine and ocean, however.

During a weeklong meeting of the National Newspaper Publishers Association this year board chairman Cloves Campbell, Jr., publisher of the Arizona Informant, cited the richness of African American history and access to Black tourism and the involvement of so many powerful Black people in prominent positions as major factors in the success of their conference. In addition, “the hosting of the GFLCVB helped to make us feel at home,” he said. 

Fort Lauderdale isn’t resting on its laurels, however. As Albert Tucker of the CVB pointed out, “We want people to recognize that we’re not just the ocean. We’re about community, which is thrusting Broward County into the national and international spotlight.”