Testifying before a congressional committee in New Orleans, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard had a message: Local tourism is taking a major hit from the BP oil spill, even though tar balls haven't washed up on our shores.
Speaking with a BP official after the meeting, Hibbard had a message for the oil company: Why not send some advertising money to local tourism officials, instead of just sending it to the state of Florida?
"I'm still concerned about the fact that people don't understand where the oil is and where it is not," Hibbard said in an interview. "We're losing bookings. Event planners aren't coming to Florida.
"In some areas of Great Britain and Germany, Florida has been taken off the tourism map until the threat has receded."
Hibbard testified Monday in New Orleans before the House Committee on Homeland Security. A subcommittee held a hearing on a number of issues relating to the oil spill. U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, asked Hibbard to speak.
The mayor will talk with Clearwater's City Council at tonight's 6 o'clock meeting about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and about a trip last month where he toured oil-soaked marshes in Louisiana.
At Monday's congressional hearing, Hibbard spoke of Clearwater-area hotels, restaurants, fishing boats, limo companies and Realtors who have lost business due to the spill.
After the hearing, he spoke with BP official Ray Dempsey, who had also testified.
Hibbard asked BP to consider funneling some advertising money to local agencies like the Pinellas tourism bureau instead of the state's tourism agency, Visit Florida.
The mayor is a board member of the Pinellas tourism agency, which is called Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater. He and other local officials have been critical of Visit Florida, which recently distributed mistake-filled fliers — 1.7 million of them. The fliers located Clearwater Beach in North Florida and put the Salvador Dali Museum in Tampa, among other errors.
It remains to be seen what BP will do.
Gov. Charlie Crist got $25 million from BP for an advertising blitz to promote Florida's beaches, but Crist was recently turned down when he asked for another $50 million.
BP's chief operating officer wrote to Crist that since most Florida beaches are clean, "We are exploring other options on how to promote tourism on a more local level to benefit those most directly impacted.''
Meanwhile, Clearwater's mayor still worries that the oil in the gulf might make its way to the Tampa Bay area.
"I keep asking how much warning we're going to get," Hibbard said.
"The answer vacillates between three and six days."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.