TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Citrus Commission is poised to choose its new executive director today from among three marketing executives.
In doing so, the commission will make clear that promoting Florida orange juice around the world should be the Department of Citrus' main focus. The agency has other duties, such as regulating the industry and conducting research, but those are second-tier, Commission Chairman Marty McKenna said.
"Its primary function is to market processed oranges," he said. "That's where the biggest amount of our growers pay our taxes, so that's the biggest responsibility that we have."
The Citrus Department is a state agency, but its operations are funded by the industry itself instead of general state revenue. Growers pay a tax on every box of harvested fruit; the current rate is 23 cents for oranges.
Former executive director Ken Keck resigned under pressure in August after state Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, ushered in legislation that changed the landscape of the commission and required Senate confirmation for the agency head.
The commission took that as an opportunity to ensure the new chief has a strong marketing background, McKenna said, and he is comfortable one of the finalists will be the right fit.
Douglas Ackerman of Bartow is a Publix marketing manager. Charles Powell of Lake Forest, Ill., helped develop the "Got Milk?" campaign. Gregory Venner of Newburgh, Ind., is a former executive vice president of SmartBalance and also worked for Tropicana during the 1990s.
The job will pay an annual salary between $190,000 and $250,000.
But one man who says he has long-standing ties to the citrus industry believes the commission is headed in the wrong direction.
"The per-box tax on citrus is to be used for not just marketing but other aspects of the Florida citrus industry," public relations executive Sam Yates said. "Unless we have someone at the head of the organization that really understands all the other aspects, will the other components get the attention? I don't think so."
Citrus is one of the state's most lucrative commodities. The industry employs about 76,000 people and has an annual economic impact of $9 billion.
But recent years have been rough. The spread of bacterial diseases like canker and greening has destroyed crops and contributed to higher prices. Meanwhile, orange juice consumption is down 31 percent over the last decade.
The challenges make marketing an even more crucial need, Florida Citrus Growers Association executive director Kristen Gunter said. Gone are the days when consumers went to the grocery store and chose between milk, apple juice and orange juice on the beverage aisle, she said, and the Citrus Department should do more to help Florida's products stand out among energy drinks and flavored water.
"We are hoping we get a good steward of the growers' tax dollars that puts together a strong plan to increase demand," she said.
Tia Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.