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Tourism executives oppose bill to make Visit Florida part of jobs agency

Tourism officials say efforts to sell Florida to the rest of the nation will be crippled by a plan to reorganize the state's marketing agency.

"This is a terrible idea," said D.T. Minich, Pinellas tourism director. "It's a huge step backward."

Last week, 71 local tourism industry executives gathered on a statewide conference call to discuss a Senate bill that would combine Visit Florida with five other state agencies. All 71 opposed the legislation.

"What came out is that everyone was adamant this is wrong and bad for tourism," said Richard Goldman, past chairman of the Florida Commission on Tourism, which oversees Visit Florida.

The quasi-public agency works with local tourism officials and travel-related businesses to buy advertising that promotes the entire state and specific destinations. Its funding comes from a portion of Florida's $2-a-day rental car tax, general revenue and contributions by tourism businesses.

If the Senate bill becomes law, Visit Florida and other entities — including Enterprise Florida and the Florida Sports Foundation — would be wrapped into a new government agency called Jobs Florida. Their revenues would be pooled and doled out by a board chaired by Gov. Rick Scott.

Hotels and theme parks pay for space in Visit Florida promotions. In all, tourism businesses spend $2 for every $1 of tax money the agency kicks in, said CEO Chris Thompson.

Companies and local tourism groups will stop contributing if they're not sure the money will go into marketing Florida to visitors instead of economic development activities, Minich said.

"I'm not comfortable sending money up to Tallahassee for something called Jobs Florida," he said. ''Tourism is all about jobs, but I'm not writing checks to bring some corporation down here."

Visit Florida was created to take decisions on tourism marketing spending away from political appointees in the state Department of Commerce, Goldman said. "We all feel we can't trust that money will be spent in our best interests," he said.

The Senate voted last week to make the bill (SBP 7202) part of its budget for the coming year. Its sponsor, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Destin, did not return calls for comment Wednesday. A House bill on reorganizing Visit Florida could come out this week, said Robert Skrob, executive director of the Florida Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus.

The reorganization would need to be part of a joint budget approved by the House and Senate and signed by Scott to become law.

Contact Steve Huettel at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Tourism executives oppose bill to make Visit Florida part of jobs agency 04/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 7, 2011 9:45pm]
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