TAMPA — While executives at Florida hospitals are reeling from $2 billion in proposed spending cuts, local tourism officials couldn't be happier with the reception they are receiving in Tallahassee.
"Four or five years ago, legislators didn't know who we were. They didn't understand the value of tourism," Thom Stork, president and CEO of the Florida Aquarium, told members of Tampa Bay & Co.'s board on Thursday.
Now, despite another tough budget year, legislators seem fully behind Gov. Rick Scott's proposal to spend $35 million on Visit Florida, the state's public-private tourism agency. It's the same amount the Legislature appropriated last year, a 31 percent increase over the prior year.
Things have changed so dramatically, Stork said, that many legislators told tourism officials last week, "Could you use more money?"
Stork called that "pretty phenomenal," though he's not sure the Legislature will find more money than Scott proposed.
Maryann Ferenc, a member of the Visit Florida board, said there's a simple reason tourism is faring so well in the state capital these days.
"It's all about jobs," she said after Thursday's luncheon meeting of the Tampa tourism group at University Club. "Just about overnight, people are realizing that tourism brings jobs. All of a sudden we're getting the attention.''
It's something that for years, tourism officials have been lobbying for, she pointed out, and particularly in the past few years.
That renewed enthusiasm for the economic value of tourism extends even to President Barack Obama. The president last week announced at Walt Disney World a series of steps designed to persuade more foreigners to visit the United States.
While Scott is not proposing a budget increase for Visit Florida, the budget picture is so bleak in Tallahassee these days that "we'd feel very good about maintaining our funding," Ferenc said.
It's very different from three years ago, when state senators publicly examined Visit Florida's budget in detail, questioning salaries and other spending.
"It's been a total turnaround," said Visit Florida president and CEO Chris Thompson. "We worked very hard over the past three years over what we do and how we do it."
Florida saw a 4.6 percent increase in tourism through the first three quarters of 2011, Thompson said, and he believes the marketing the agency did is partly responsible.
Every dollar the state spends is matched by private companies, which also provide millions more of in-kind contributions.
"We're coming off tough times. There was a lot of pent-up demand," Thompson said. "All you had to do was prime the pump and the Legislature recognized that last year."
Tom Scherberger can be reached at (813) 226-3384 or [email protected]