LAKELAND (FOX 13) - The next Miss America could be in Lakeland right now. It's the new home of the Miss Florida 2016 pageant.
48 young women are competing for the crown at The Lakeland Center this week. The preliminary competitions began Tuesday night and run through Thursday night. The final competition is Saturday night.
Though there can only be one winner, arguably, the City of Lakeland already took home a win in getting the chance to host this event for the first time.
"So many people said, 'why Lakeland?' And, I said, 'why not?'" said Mary Sullivan, Pageant Executive Director.
The pageant was in St. Petersburg for more than a decade, but when organizers decided to dedicate more money to scholarships than to event and venue costs, they looked east to Sullivan's hometown.
"It's perfect," Sullivan said. "It's a paradise. It's in the middle of the state. It's in the heart of Florida. It has a community feel, which is what we need."
The city happily opened the doors of The Lakeland Center at no cost.
"It was a tremendous opportunity for us and, certainly we took advantage of it," said Mark Jackson, Director of Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing. "Just the events leading up to the week of Miss Florida generated almost $500,000. We had an orientation weekend. We had a public service day."
The event itself brings a $1.65 million economic impact, but Jackson said it doesn't stop there.
"What's really interesting is the visibility that this creates and positive image for the state of Florida right now," Jackson said. "You can't buy that type of public relations."
Miss Florida 2015, MaryKatherine Fechtel of Leesburg is a perfect example of what opportunities come with the crown.
"You realize these are the most talented, accomplished, smart young women in the state," Fechtel said. "Everything that encompasses the Miss America organization involves a lot of work and it also encourages scholastic achievement."
Sullivan said, "MaryKatherine competed. She had this goal of going to law school and didn't have the scholarship money. And, she's won almost $30,000 and will be able to realize that dream."
A total of $65,000 in scholarship money is up for grabs this year.
All 48 contestants put in months of practice. One will forever remember Lakeland as the place they became Miss Florida 2016.
"This is about the people of Florida," Jackson said. "The best of the best. The brightest of the brightest. And, it is good to have everyone right here in Lakeland and in Polk County."
Miss Florida will be crowned at the final competition which begins at 8 p.m. on Saturday night. Whoever wins will represent the state in September in Atlantic City.