Take a leap back to the early 80s, it was a time when no one really knew about Lakeland, Florida.  We suffered from a difficult economy, and a 21% unemployment rate, one of the highest in the nation.  It was an incredibly challenging time for businesses and our community.  During this time, I was fortunate to serve as the chairman of the board for the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce.  Our board, along with many city leaders and chamber members, were constantly seeking ways to promote Lakeland as the great community we knew it to be.  The opportunity that presented as a means to help with the effort is a true Beauty and the Beast fairytale.

In May 1984, beloved game show host Bob Barker said the words, “Welcome to the 33rd annual Miss USA Pageant coming to you live from the citrus capital of the world, Lakeland, Florida.” For me and a team of 35 committees and over 1000 volunteers who worked on this project, this was sweet music to the ears. Bringing the Miss USA pageant to our community was a game changer for Lakeland.  Earlier, I mentioned Beauty and the Beast because I see the pageant as the beauty and Lakeland was the beast challenged to show its value.  This event topped the Nielsen Ratings as one of the top watched shows.  It was the catalyst for change and put Lakeland on the worldwide map.  Reflecting on this time of change for our community, I remember hearing Lee Greenwood set the tone with his first time worldwide telecast of God bless the USA.  He was joined by other popular bands of that era like Kool and the Gang.

Our community’s short reign as host to beauty pageants began with the Miss Teen USA pageant in 1983, and then the Miss USA pageant in 1984 and 1985.  The project was certainly a community initiative as local businesses contributed to the $1M price tag necessary to bring an event of this magnitude to the community. And, although our reign was short, the benefits have been long lasting.  The experience serves as a reminder that when a community bands together, great things happen.