PANAMA CITY BEACH — Sports towels and fleece blankets. A poker tournament. A $1 million Christmas display. A prom for senior citizens. BP gas card giveaways. A "most deserving mom" contest. And advertising, lots of advertising.
Panhandle officials made the mix of eyebrow-raising purchases with $30 million BP gave them this year to help tourism recover from 2010's disastrous gulf oil spill.
The money allowed seven area tourism bureaus to try promotions they could never have afforded otherwise, and it has propelled the Panhandle's visitor counts to record numbers this year after a disastrous season right after the spill. The question now is what happens when the BP money dries up, most likely in April. The grants doubled and tripled the tourism-promotion budgets in these Panhandle counties, and officials worry the boost in visitors may prove fleeting.
"It is one thing to have your numbers go up when a tremendous amount of money is being put, not only in our economy, but in all of North Florida," said Curt Blair, executive director of the Franklin County Tourist Development Council. "We will see after April whether part of this was a real recovery … or if we see falloff."
BP announced the $30 million tourism grants in April. While the agreement for the $30 million doesn't prevent Florida from pursuing any claims against BP or others, officials there decided a week later not to join other gulf states in a lawsuit against Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig at the heart of the spill.
Florida's tourism spending spree isn't the first time that BP money has allowed government officials to snag items from their wish lists.
In all, BP has given $150 million to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi for tourism promotion since the oil spill, with the Sunshine State getting the lion's share — $62 million.
In the case of the more-recent payout, Florida Panhandle counties have allocated more than $23 million of the $30 million through September, with $13.5 million used on for television, digital, radio and print advertising.
Some wonder whether the most extravagant promotions — such as Panama City Beach's $1 million Christmas display — are worth it.
In Pensacola, the BP money paid for $30,000 worth of sports towels and another $30,000 worth of fleece blankets given out at local sporting events. In neighboring Perdido Key, officials spent $300,000 on American Express gift cards for overnight visitors. They also purchased $12,500 worth of BP gas cards for tourists who present receipts showing they've stayed in the area, essentially putting BP funds back into the company's pocket.
Okaloosa County, home to Destin and Fort Walton Beach, is giving away a trip to the Super Bowl and tickets to the BCS championship football game to drive traffic to its Facebook page. South Walton Beach also is giving away BCS tickets on Facebook.
Okaloosa County spent a half-million dollars marketing and advertising Vision Airlines, which this year launched service from the Northwest Florida Regional Airport to several Southeast cities.
Carol Daley of Arlington, Texas, won a "Search for America's Most Deserving Mom" contest from Okaloosa County. Her prizes were a one-week stay in Destin, round-trip airfare, $1,000 for a spending spree and a 2011 Buick Enclave valued at more than $36,000.
A $166,000 Panama City Beach program includes a prom next month for senior citizens. The couple chosen prom king and queen from online submissions will get to invite two friends for a weekend at the beach.
Florida State University professor Mark Bonn isn't sure negative perceptions about the Panhandle will vanish so quickly, especially the further away the prospective visitor lives.
"I think it's going to be a five-year minimal process before people are convinced that everything is okay," said Bonn, a professor of service management. "I think it takes people time to adjust to situations."