Peltier column: Rick Scott wants more money to promote Florida

MICHAEL PELTIER

— Despite a sluggish economy and a potential $3 billion budget gap, Florida would more than double the state’s tourism marketing budget and may give big electric utilities a break under proposals unveiled so far by Gov.-elect Rick Scott’s transition team.

Nestled in a 109-page economic development proposal released last week by a Scott transition team are plans for ramping up marketing efforts by earmarking $62.5 million for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing arm. The sum would more than double the $29.4 million the state now spends to promote its beaches, attractions and leisure lifestyle.

State funding would be augmented dollar for dollar by private matching funds from an industry still reeling from recession and a summer oil spill that crippled the Panhandle region and sent a pall over the entire peninsula and into the Keys.

The goal? Nothing less than to make Florida the No. 1 tourism destination in the country.

Florida now ranks fifth nationally in tourism office spending, according to statistics from the U.S. Travel Association cited in the report, the first detailed glimpse of Scott’s tourism agenda. The proposal would boost the state’s rank to second behind only Hawaii. If matching funds are secured, the combined marketing power would top the public spending of France, Spain or Australia.

The expanded effort would translate into 35,500 additional jobs a year and $3.6 billion in additional direct spending, the report estimates.

Private industry has been outspending the state by more nearly 2-to-1 since 1996, a ratio the Scott team said needs to be changed.

The tourism stimulus package follows a dismal summer season that brought Northwest Florida to its knees. Soon after the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, hotel and lodging officials have been clamoring for a coordinated state effort to save what they could of the summer season.

Those officials are now worried that visitors who went elsewhere in 2010 will not return in 2011, a scenario they fear could come about if the state doesn’t spend the money needed to lure tourists back.

“What keeps me awake at night in regard to Northwest Florida is all those people who went to Myrtle Beach last year instead of going to Destin or Panama City Beach or Pensacola,” said Bill McAllister, president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation last week.

“Did they find something there that they enjoyed so they are going to try it one more year?”

The tourism effort is part of a series of proposals to spur business in the state. Scott has called for reducing the corporate income tax while cutting property taxes by 19 percent.

During the campaign, for example, Scott also called for reducing businesses electrical costs by $3.2 billion as part of his “Let’s Get to Work” strategy to create 700,000 additional jobs over the next seven years.

To make up the difference, Scott would likely have to ask residential customers to pick up the tab. That battle will play itself out in both the Legislature and the Florida Public Services Commission.

E-mail Michael Peltier at mpeltier1234@comcast.net.

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