With oil threatening to foul the first Florida beach, Pinellas County has asked for a share of $25 million BP gave the state to help attract summer tourists.
"Pinellas County is the most visited destination on Florida's Gulf Coast," wrote D.T. Minich, the county's tourism director, in a letter to Gov. Charlie Crist late Wednesday. "As such, we have the most to lose economically and environmentally."
The county wants $2.5 million for a marketing and research campaign to tell summer travelers the Gulf of Mexico oil spill hasn't touched Pinellas beaches. That would augment the seasonal $1 million advertising program Pinellas already has going.
So far, the state has focused on promoting the Panhandle, hardest hit by hotel cancellations and a sharp drop in calls from summer tourists.
Visit Florida, the state's public-private tourism agency, has tapped $2.5 million from its ad budget and reserves for a campaign in more than a dozen feeder markets in the Southeast. The first newspaper website ads began in mid May, followed by television spots just before Memorial Day weekend.
A task force working for Crist allocated just over $7 million of the BP money for Visit Florida and $4.4 million for eight Panhandle counties, said Kathy Torian, a spokeswoman for Visit Florida. The money hadn't been transferred from the state yet, she said.
On Thursday, Crist took an aerial tour off the state's northwest coast and spotted a patch of light oil sheen about 4 miles from Pensacola Beach. The bulk of the sheen was 10 miles from the beach.
News of oil touching Panhandle beaches would make problems for Pinellas' tourist industry worse, said Minich. Hotel room cancellations are picking up, he said, and the volume of phone and website inquiries from summer visitors is way down.
Advertising aimed at assuring visitors the oil spill won't ruin a summer stay in the Panhandle haven't helped so far, says Minich. The ads don't reach Northeast and Midwest cities that supply most of the area's domestic summer tourists.
The biggest chunk of Pinellas' request is $1.15 million for television, online and newspaper ads carrying the "clean and open for business" theme.
Minich is scheduled to testify Wednesday before a U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which is looking into increasing or removing a $75 million cap on liability for oil drilling accidents.
He will talk about Florida's $65 billion-a-year tourism industry and how the oil spill could ruin it. In Pinellas alone, a 25 percent drop in tourism would cost 21,000 jobs and shutter 300 restaurants, Minich told a House committee last year.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.