Meet Media Relations and Social Media Manager for the Florence – Lauderdale Department of Tourism, Randa Hovater. Randa gives us a little background on the Muscle Shoals area and shares with us some great places to eat when you’re in town.
Anna: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Main and Mulberry. I’m Anna Bell, and today I’m really excited to have with us the Media Relations and Social Media Manager for the Florence – Lauderdale Department of Tourism, Randa Hovater. Randa, we’re so excited to have you on the show with us today.
Randa: Thanks. I’m excited to be here.
Anna: Yeah. I’m really excited to learn about Florence, Alabama. So let’s jump right in, Randa. Tell us where you’re located in Alabama. How can we get to you?
Randa: Okay. So if you’re looking at the state of Alabama, so I’ve got it on my shirt, we are right here. So we’re on the top Northwest corner of the state. We’re kind of like in like a, a sort of a group of four cities called the Shoals. So I’m sure a lot of people have heard of Muscle Shoals and the brand. I mean, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Florence are all right in together. So that’s where we are. We’re about, I would say, about an hour to 45 minutes from Huntsville.
Anna: Can you explain that nickname to us?
Randa: Well, it’s not really a nickname. It is just a city. It’s another city in the area. But really in 2013, the documentary Muscle Shoals was released, and I guess it kind of really boosted music tourism here because we do have a lot of music history. And so I think that’s kind of where it gained its popularity, but Muscle Shoals Music is a brand of its own. So it’s very well known internationally, too.
Anna: So tell us the area again, you were naming off several cities there around Florence that are all kind of grouped together.
Randa: Yeah, so like for example, I live in Sheffield but I work at here in Florence and when I come from Sheffield to Florence, it takes me six minutes to get to work. Yeah, everything’s really close together. My husband works in Tuscumbia, and it takes him two minutes. So it’s all super close.
Anna: You could always ride your bike if it was a nice day, right? It’s too hot right now.
Randa: If it’s not sweltering hot, like it is now.
Anna: That’s right. That’s right. Well, Randa, for those of us who have not had the opportunity to visit yet, we’d love for you to kind of bring this place to life for us. What is it that you think that really encourages tourists and families to come visit the city?
Randa: Yeah, of course. So, like I said, with the music documentary Muscle Shoals, that was like a big, that caused a huge surge in music tourism here. Music tourism is one of our biggest pulls. So we do have several studios and music attraction that are very well known, like I said, internationally, and also very well known to locals alike because we’ve built our history on this. So we are a music town, so you can pretty much name it: Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, the Rolling Stones. They’ve all recorded here. I mean, Alicia Keys, more recently, The Black Keys. And so it’s a really cool city and you can tour two of the main studios, Fame Recording Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios on a regular basis. A really cool fact about Muscle Shoals Sound Studio is, is they actually reopened in January of 2017, and they got to reopen and remodel because of the documentary muscle Shoals. Dr. Dre from Beats Electronic saw the documentary and sent the muscle Shoals music foundation just under a million dollars to restore the studio and turn it into an attraction. So that has been a huge deal for us. And we attribute a lot of credit to that documentary. We are forever grateful for it. But some other things aside from, or with music, we do have a lot of other recording studios that are just operating right now in our area. And then you can also tour Cypress Moon Studios, which is technically the second location of Muscle Shoals Sound, when they outgrew their first building, and you can tour that. And then also W.C. Handy’s, we’re the birthplace of W.C. Handy, so you can tour his birthplace and there’s a museum there, and that’s always really neat. And then one thing that I always think is cool in Tuscumbia, Alabama, that’s the birthplace of Helen Keller, so you can tour Helen Keller’s birthplace home. And then typically every year we do have a Helen Keller Festival. Unfortunately, this year it was canceled. But we did normally have that this year, but due to the coronavirus, a lot of things have gotten canceled it, and that was one of those. And another really cool thing that we have here in Florence is Alabama’s only Frank Lloyd Wright design structure.
Anna: What is that? So Frank Lloyd Wright is, I mean, obviously a globally-known architect, and there’s several different things that he has built or designed probably like up North, really. Like he has several, I know he has one in, I believe Arizona. I’m not a hundred percent sure on the fact checking on that, but he has tons of different houses and offices and buildings and things like that, but very well-known architect, and we have one of his homes here in Florence, and it’s the only one in the state of Alabama, but also the only one in the Southeast that’s directly open to the public. I believe there’s one that’s in Arkansas, but I think it’s attached to another building. So I’m not a hundred percent sure how you tour it, but it is so cool. It’s really, really neat.
Anna: That’s awesome. I kind of want to go back to, you were helping us understand the music scene in Florence, and I kind of want to want to go back to that. Do you see a lot of tourists being local musicians and up-and-coming musicians? Is that a lot of the tourist people that are coming in the music scene?
Randa: Yeah, so we have a ton of people who are musicians who come to tour. I mean, like I said, people come, we see grown men all the time come and they’ll stand in the studio and cry because like, the soundtrack of their lives was made and recorded here, and that’s always something that’s really interesting to say, but definitely even well-known musicians have come and toured the studios. We had Steven Tyler, a few, I guess it was last year, come and do some tours, and he actually did record last year, so that was pretty neat. But yeah, we see a lot of those, and you know, we’re really close to Nashville. It’s only about two hours from here. And so we have a lot of musicians that come and record here, or a lot of musicians that end up moving here because it’s really affordable to live here in the Shoals area, and that’s something that’s always been something that we can pride ourselves on is affordability. And so we have a lot of musicians who end up moving here and then live here and travel where they need to have gigs or shows or things like that. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of John Paul White. He lives here in Florence and he actually has a recording studio in downtown Florence. He lives here with his family. He’s just one of the very many musicians that we have living here in the Shoals.
Anna: That’s so awesome. You started to touch on events, and I’m sure in the summertime you probably see a rise in tourism, but I’m curious about, you know, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on tourism in Florence, you know. Have you had to cancel or postpone a lot of your events? Yeah, we have. So several of our events that we typically have, you know, are annual events that have been canceled. Like I mentioned, Helen Keller Festival was canceled, and Billy Reed, I don’t know if you ever heard of him. He is a fashion designer, and his flagship stores here, in downtown Florence, and he lives in Florence as well. But every year he has Billy Reed’s Shindig in August, and they have decided to cancel that this year. And then last year we had the very first Shoals Fest by Jason Isbell, and I don’t think they have officially announced a hundred percent that it has been canceled, so I’m not going to say it has been, but they have not made any more plans for this year, just due to the coronavirus and having like a bunch of people all together. One thing that has not been canceled but has definitely been altered is our W.C. Handy Festival. Typically, that’s later in July, so I think it, I believe it starts on the 17th and then it’ll end on the 29th, I believe. And you know, we’ll have big concerts and, you know, musicians will come and play in restaurants and things like that. So this year it’s definitely going to be scaled down a bit. So it’s going to be interesting to see how they do it. I know a lot of the music acts will be outdoors, and a lot of them will have to control how many people are in a venue at a time. I think the festival leaders are kind of leaving it up to the venue owner. So for us, you’ll kinda have to decide, do you want to have your event or do you want to put it outside? And so people can properly socially distance and things like that. So it’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out and what the turnout will be, but we’re taking proper precautions. We got our Handy Fest t-shirts in, and they also printed some Handy Festival masks for people to wear to different events and things like that.
Anna: What a way to remember the event, with your mask, you know?
Randa: You’ll pull it out of your box in 20 years and be like, “what, what is this?” And then you’ll remember: everybody had to have one.
Anna: Well, can you tell us, Randa about the downtown area? I am curious to know, can you kind of paint that picture for us, what it’s like downtown?
Randa: Oh, yeah. For sure. So three of the four cities that we represent have a downtown. First and foremost, Florence, which is where we are located here in the visitors’ center, we’re not located in downtown, but we’re about 25 seconds from downtown Florence. And all three downtown areas in Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia, they are just so quaint, and just the buildings are stunning. They have been, most for the most part, really, really well and revived if they needed to be revived. A lot of the buildings, you know, for example, a restaurant in downtown Florence called Odette, it used to be an old shoe store, and then Billy Reed is, like I said, he’s a fashion designer, but he has his flagship store in Florence, and originally his store was the very first Books-A-Million ever. So Books-A-Million originated here. And so it was very first, like I said, Books-A-Million ever but we have a lot of stories like that in downtown. So, you know, it used to be something, or originally it was like an old department store or something like that. And it’s just done really, really well where people, you know, invest in these properties and turn them into something else. But downtown Florence is just absolutely precious. It is just very well done.
Anna: It sounds like it’s a good place to get out and walk around.
Randa: Yes. Oh yeah. For sure. We have something, right now we haven’t been doing it, but we call it First Fridays, and a lot of people have a first Friday. So the first Friday of every month, the downtown shops will stay open later and you can come downtown and just kind of hang out, grab a bite to eat, cause there’s a ton of restaurants in downtown Florence. So you park your car, you get something to eat, you go see the art vendors, you listen to some live music and things like that. Like I said, they haven’t been able to do it this summer yet, so… They do have it planned for August, but I’m not sure if they’re going to go through with it or anything like that, so we’ll see.
Anna: A lot of things up in the air, but one thing is, you know, even with the stay at home in place and that sort of thing, getting outside and outdoors has been a real reprieve for a lot of people. And I know you’re not far from the Natchez Trace Preserve, right? Is that right?
Randa: Yeah, that’s correct. Yeah, it runs right through pretty much Tuscumbia and parts of Florence and yeah, we’re not far at all. We’re part of the Natchez Trace Compact. So we work very closely with them, with marketing and things like that. But yes, we have a lot of things to do outdoors. One big thing that we have here, in the Shoals area is Pickwick Lake, right out in front of our visitors’ center, and so we do a lot of fishing tournaments and things like that. We have a lot of bass fishing here and, our visitors’ center is located right next to a Marina. So we see all the fishermen and all the anglers coming in for the weekend and things like that. But lots of fishing has been done because you can properly socially distance in a boat. We do have a lot of kayak and canoe trails and things like that here. So a lot of people have been getting out and investing in kayaks so they can kind of do some things with their friends and family.
Anna: Oh, how fun? I know it. Yeah, that has been a real, a nice thing to have, and everybody’s getting outside and enjoying the sunshine and fresh air. And so that’s one positive out of all of it, right? Randa, you have the inside scoop on Florence, Alabama, I would totally say. Maybe you could share a tip with us on, you know, as visitors when we come to visit. Is there a particular place we’ve got to go eat or is there a shop we’ve got to go visit? What would be a tip from you?
Randa: Oh, okay. A tip from me. Let’s see. Some of my favorite places to eat? In Florence, we have a couple of really cool like staples that are like, “Oh, when I go to Florence, I always go to blank.” A couple of those are Odette, like I had mentioned. It’s in downtown Florence. They’re farm to table, but they have never disappointed. So one of my jobs is to take media professionals to see the Shoals, and like if they’re writing a story or anything like that, basically I take them to eat, I take them to the attractions and basically just kind of, I’m basically their chauffeur. I’ve been to Odette way too many times that I can count, and everything has always been fantastic. That’s always a really good one. They really take pride in their bar area. They have an entire wall of a bar. So if you’re into mixologists and things like that, definitely something to check out. Another place in downtown Florence would be Yum. Yum is a Thai and sushi kind of blend, but they’ve got fantastic food. And then two more restaurants in downtown Florence that I would say are staples is, one is Rigatoni’s and they are an Italian restaurant locally-owned here. They’ve been here for quite some time. And then lastly, Trowbridges, which is in downtown Florence. And they have been, they’re Florida’s oldest business operating in its original location. So they’ve been there for, I think a hundred years now. And so they’re a little ice cream soda shop, sandwich shop, and things like that.
Anna: Oh, I love that. Okay, so you gave us several good places to go check out. We really do appreciate that. And Randa, thank you so much for taking the time to really share with us all the wonderful things about the Shoals area. We really do appreciate your time and insight today.
Randa: Awesome. Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Yeah, absolutely. Until next time, I’m Anna Bell sending you all well wishes.