If you tried to navigate in, around or through the small rural town of Wausau, Florida this weekend you encountered traffic jams, a festive atmosphere and upwards of 10,000 people in the streets.
The reason for the crowds (Wausau has fewer than 200 full-time residents) was the annual Possum Festival, held the first Saturday in August each year, and this year celebrating 44 years of heritage.
Although typically well-attended, this year the festival attendees were more numerous than average due to a visit from Florida Governor Rick Scott, who, along with his wife and staff, spent a large portion of the day in Wausau.
The staff of local print periodical and TV show ‘Real Florida Magazine’ spent the day embedded with the gubernatorial team, documenting the Governor’s visit to Wausau in photo and video and capturing a rare ‘behind the scenes’ look at the visit.
Beginning with a pancake breakfast at 7AM and an opportunity to have some relatively quiet time with locals, Scott then took a foot tour of the town, meeting local residents and more than a few visitors, joining the Wausau Possum Parade starting at 10AM and finishing with a short address of the crowd along with Florida Representatives Marti Coley and Matt Gaetz.
The Governor took the opportunity to ‘shake a Possum’, a tradition followed by politicians for the duration of the festival history. The story goes that a Florida gubernatorial candidate will not get elected unless he or she attends the festival and performs this traditional ceremony.
Admittedly one of the most unusual and unique festivals in Northwest Florida, this event celebrates the opossum, a marsupial that thrives in this part of Florida and helped the local population survive the great depression in the early 20th century, and is arguably one of the most high-profile heritage festivals in the Southeast, enjoying a rich heritage along with totally free admission.
Local public relations firm The Goulding Agency, Inc., based in Chipley, Florida, who has represented the Possum Festival as advertising agency of record for several years, coordinated the Governor’s visit, interacting with the Governor’s staff, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Wausau Fire Department and county officials, along well as local law enforcement.
‘An amazing number of hours go into coordinating an event such as this’, says Debbie Goulding, vice-president for The Goulding Agency. ‘Several walk-throughs of the festival area and the town proper, along with hours of phone conferences and hammering down details made the event look seamless and relaxed, while just below the surface, response to all contingencies were in place’.
The Festival draws attendees from all over the Southeast United States, especially in election years, but this year’s event did not occur during one of those cycles. ‘Hits on the festival web site typically average several thousand per week for several months prior to the festival’, says Goulding. ‘With the pre-publicity of the Governor’s visit this number swelled significantly, with the news along with reference to the website carried by newsgatherers from literally across the Southeast’.
Despite hot temperatures and the threat of rain showers, a standing-room-only crowd packed the Possum Palace following the parade. ‘We enjoy visitors from literally all over the United States for this festival’, says Goulding. ‘The event is not only one of the oldest totally free festivals in this part of the United States but also attracts an inordinate amount of national and international attention. This is an opportunity to showcase our beautiful area to these visitors, potentially recycling them back to the area in the future’.
‘The economic impact to the area from this event is also huge’, Goulding continues. ‘We have many requests for information about motels rooms, restaurants and attractions from the visitors to the festival, with many overnight stays due to the two-day event’.