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Legislators Split On Visit Florida's Future

Ricardo's Photography

For years the Florida legislature has funded Visit Florida – a group charged with advertising and marketing tourism for the state. It works overseas, and around the country and also keeps track of the state’s tourism number. Now the agency is set to dissolve in October unless the legislature decides to keep it going.

But both chambers are at odds on whether it’s needed.

Visit Florida is a private/public corporation that works to bring tourist to the state. Some people are questioning why Florida needs to be advertised when it has beaches, theme parks, and nearly every professional sport. Carol Dover President and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, who has also been a part of Visit Florida’s Board since it was formed says those places do a fine job of advertising for themselves, but those aren’t the places Visit Florida focuses on.

“Many people think that Visit Florida is about promoting the big areas that is not where Visit Florida targets. Many of our larger areas don’t need as much marketing as say our rural areas.  Like Panama City when they begin to comeback, Panama City, Port St. Joe who’s going to tell people they’re back open for business when they get back opened," said Dover.

Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota) is sponsoring the bill in the chamber that would remove the repeal date and make Visit Florida permanent.

““they play a very important role in terms of marketing our state. Especially when we have issues come up like Matthew, Michael, and Irma as well as Red Tide. they make sure that people know we are open for business," said Gruters.

Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) believes Visit Florida is a benefit to the state. He just doesn’t want the repeal date to go away because he thinks the review process is necessary.

“I think there is some leverage that the legislature is giving up here in the future years, and to the extent that you could extend it 8 or 9 years I think would allow us to have plenty of runway. But also allows this to be reviewed and make sure that administrations are keeping it running appropriately," said Brandes.

In July 2015 Visit Florida entered into a contract with Pitbull to promote the state on social media, in a music video and during concerts. After it came to light that the contract was worth 1 million dollars the then CEO resigned although he defended the deal.

But even though former House Speaker Richard Corcoran thought it was a bad deal, Visit Florida has been able to show it’s beneficial to the state. According to the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research, for every $1 the state invests in Visit Florida, $2.15 in tax revenue is generated.

So when people talk about repealing it Sen. David Simmons (R-Longwood) says he doesn’t get why.

“But we keep talking about or I keep hearing reference to that it’s costing us money. That’s not correct based upon the EDR numbers that I have seen. We’re making money. Hard dollars to the state of Florida for an investment to the people of the state of Florida," said Longwood.

Carol Dover remembers when Visit Florida wasn’t given the extra funding.

"For someone who has been on the board for many years, I remember back when we used to get you know 24, 25 million dollars from the legislature and we hovered at about 82 million visitors for years. We used to constantly discuss how are we ever going to break the ceiling and get more than 82 to 85 million visitors," said Dover.

She said their answer came when Governor Rick Scott decided to add more funding to their budget.

"So when we got 64 million dollars from the legislature we jumped up to 91 million visitors and that was our first big break from the 82, 83 million visitors we jumped finally to 91 million. So that’s when we knew it worked the more money you put in marketing the more people are going to come to our state," said Dover.

If that funding isn’t provided this year, the legislature will still be relying on tourist to come to the state because Sales Tax Revenue is the vast majority of where Florida gets the funds for its budget.

“We have 1.4 million workers in the hospitality and tourism industry. So when you take the largest employers, the largest tax state, the largest tourist state, and then you want to even begin to think about not funding it I just can’t comprehend why we wouldn’t fund it, it’s definitely a model that’s not broken," said Dover.

As Dover explains tourism not only helps fund Florida’s budget but also helps business and creates jobs.

Blaise Gainey is a State Government Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.