Visit Florida should stay alive, Se­nate pres­i­dent says

Orlando Sentinel - - BUSINESS - By Jim Turner Sub­mit pro­fes­sional ap­point­ments, man­age­ment-level pro­mo­tions and sig­nif­i­cant awards for in­di­vid­u­als, and pho­tos, to peo­pleon­[email protected]­lan­dosen­tinel.com.

TAL­LA­HAS­SEE — Se­nate Pres­i­dent Bill Gal­vano de­fended the need for Florida to mar­ket its tourism in­dus­try against images of hur­ri­canes and pol­luted waters, as a bat­tle is again shap­ing up with House lead­ers over the fu­ture of Visit Florida.

Ad­dress­ing reporters Tues­day in his of­fice, Gal­vano, R-Braden­ton, said his House coun­ter­parts and other Visit Florida crit­ics make valid points that reg­u­lar tourism mar­ket­ing can be han­dled by lo­cal gov­ern­ments and busi­nesses. How­ever, Gal­vano said Visit Florida, a touris­m­mar­ket­ing agency that re­ceives pub­lic and pri­vate fund­ing, is needed to off­set neg­a­tive me­dia at­ten­tion.

“There are cer­tain things we do have to mes­sage and mit­i­gate,” Gal­vano said. “For ex­am­ple, whether it’s Zika (an out­break of the Zika virus in 2016) that cost our tourism in­dus­try mil­lions, tens of mil­lions of dol­lars. You have red tide is­sues. Al­gae. Hur­ri­canes. Things that are im­por­tant to re-mes­sage or ex­plain.

“Just a straight up ad­ver­tis­ing, ‘Come to

Florida,’ I would agree we have pri­vate busi­ness in­ter­ests that can do a good job of that on their own,” he said.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Mi­ami Lakes Repub­li­can who has sup­ported elim­i­nat­ing Visit Florida, re­it­er­ated in a news­pa­per col­umn this month that tourists would still be drawn to Florida with­out tax­payer-paid pro­mo­tional ef­forts.

“The Span­ish built St. Au­gus­tine and they came. Henry Fla­gler built a rail­road to nowhere and they came. And a man from Missouri named Walt built in the mid­dle of Florida and they came by the mil­lions,” Oliva, R-Mi­ami Lakes, wrote. “Florida is the ‘it’ that peo­ple want to come see. And there are plenty of pri­vate and gov­ern­ment mar­ket­ing ef­forts un­der­way ev­ery day.”

Oliva’s col­umn pushed back against news­pa­per ed­i­to­ri­als and peo­ple sup­port­ing Gov. Ron DeSan­tis’ pro­posal to main­tain $50 mil­lion in fund­ing for Visit Florida next fis­cal year and against bills (SB 362 and HB 213) that would keep the touris­m­mar­ket­ing agency op­er­at­ing through Oct. 1, 2028.

“Most peo­ple don’t know that nearly all of the 67 coun­ties col­lect the ‘lo­cal op­tion tourist tax’ and county agen­cies like Tourism De­vel­op­ment Coun­cils spend that money on tourism and mar­ket­ing and other ac­tiv­i­ties to draw vis­i­tors,” Oliva wrote. “In 2019, Florida’s coun­ties col­lected over $1 bil­lion in rev­enue. You read that right, that’s 1 bil­lion with a B.”

Law­mak­ers this fis­cal year cut Visit Florida’s fund­ing from $76 mil­lion to $50 mil­lion. Visit Florida fired 44 of its 135 work­ers to carry out the fund­ing cut.

House lead­ers in re­cent years ques­tioned some of Visit Florida past con­tracts, in­clud­ing $1 mil­lion for rap­per Pitbull to mar­ket the state, $1.25 mil­lion to spon­sors of the Bri­tish foot­ball club Ful­ham and $2.9 mil­lion to spon­sor an IMSA rac­ing team.

Gal­vano said the ear­lier crit­i­cism and fund­ing cuts have forced the agency to be­come more “ef­fi­cient and fo­cused.”

Visit Florida Pres­i­dent and CEO Dana Young, a former state law­maker from Tampa, has ar­gued that af­ter Hur­ri­cane Michael, the agency un­der­took a $5 mil­lion mar­ket­ing cam­paign needed to coun­ter­act an es­ti­mated $35 mil­lion in neg­a­tive me­dia cov­er­age.

STEVE CAN­NON/AP

Se­nate Pres­i­dent Bill Gal­vano, R-Braden­ton, said Visit Florida is needed to off­set neg­a­tive me­dia at­ten­tion.

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