CLEARWATER — Two of the best-known names in Florida — Gov. Rick Scott and Winter the dolphin — had a face-to-snout Thursday morning.
In a brief visit to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Scott predicted a huge payoff for the $74 million earmarked for tourism funding in this year's state budget. For every $1 the government spends on its tourism arm Visit Florida, the taxpayer sees a $3.20 return on investment, he said.
"Our whole goal today is to highlight what's driving a lot of jobs in the state — and that's tourism," Scott said, speaking in front of a crowd that included Visit Florida president Will Seccombe, former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard and State Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole.
Scott touted the success story of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which has seen a tremendous spike in visitors since the release of Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2, feature films based on the stories of rescued dolphins Winter and Hope.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates said the movies had created an economic impact of more than $1 billion for Pinellas County.
"In particular, Dolphin Tale 2 and its resulting impact that we're experiencing right now would have never happened without the support of a number of elected officials," Yates said, recognizing Scott in particular. In vetoing $461 million in state spending in June, the governor spared $1 million that the aquarium plans to spend on a new dolphin habitat.
Scott returned the compliment to Yates, saying the success of Florida's tourism industry has been a joint effort between the private and public sectors.
In the first quarter of 2015, Florida had its busiest tourism quarter on record. About 28 million people visited the state, up 6.2 percent from 2014. That puts Florida on pace this year to smash the 100 million tourist threshold Scott has set as a goal.
Last year, 98.9 million tourists came to Florida.
The governor emphasized that all those visitors mean more jobs here. In his press conference, Scott cited a statistic backed by the independent Florida TaxWatch, which says for every 85 visitors to the state, a new job is created.
When Scott finished speaking, he headed to the outside habitat of two of Florida's biggest movie stars, Winter and Hope.
Scott spent several minutes petting and visiting with both Winter, swimming with a prosthetic tail, and Hope, rescued as a severely dehydrated infant orphan.
"It's always fun to come here. Watching the two Dolphin Tale movies has been enjoyable," he said.
Contact Kirby Wilson at email@example.com or (727) 893-8092. Follow @kirbywilson88.