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Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley is making an emergency trip to Tallahassee to fight plans to eliminate the state’s tourism marketing agency.
Sarasota Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017 2 years ago

Visit Sarasota County leader fights house bill

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Virginia Haley is rallying opposition to a proposal to eliminate the Visit Florida, the state’s tourism agency.
by: Alex Mahadevan News Innovation Editor

Tomorrow, members of the Florida House of Representatives Careers & Competition Subcommittee will discuss a bill that would axe a slough of incentive programs — and Visit Florida.

Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley hopes area representatives will stand up for local tourism and oppose the legislation. But with House Speaker Richard Corcoran at odds with the the state marketing agency — particularly from controversy over a $1 million contract with rapper Pitbull — it will be tough for Republican lawmakers to stand against the bill.

“The house speaker’s position on economic development of all kinds is certainly not a surprise,” said Haley, who acknowledged there were reforms needed at the state organization. “I thought that’s where we were headed, and I was shocked when it came to total elimination.”

In one example of direct work between the county and state agencies, the two organizations partnered to advertise on train cars in Chicago in 2014, saving Visit Sarasota County $30,625. The analysis is one of several items Visit Sarasota County has posted on its website in defense of tourism marketing.

Visit Florida also pays for blocks at international trade shows. For example, it costs Visit Sarasota County about $20,000 for room at the World Travel Market in London, but that could be as much as $100,000 without state help.

Visit Florida contracts with Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development organization, “to execute tourism promotion and marketing services, functions, and programs for the state,” according to Florida statutes. 

Freshman Rep. Alex Miller said she hasn’t read the summary of the bill, which only came out last night, but sees the justification for both sides of the issue. While she intends to make a statement in favor of economic incentives at tomorrow’s meeting, she will likely vote to advance the bill, after which she hopes the two sides find compromise.

“I’m all about common sense and compromise and I would like to see some compromise if this passes that committee — which I expect it will,” Miller said.

Rep. Joe Gruters is taking an idealogical stand.

“I will tell you overall tourism does so much for our economy both on the local level and statewide that to eliminate Visit Florida would be a real tragedy,” he said. “So I’m definitely a no.”

For one, Gruters said the booming hotel market in downtown Sarasota is indicative of the work Visit Florida and Visit Sarasota County have done to promote the area.

“Think about what that does to our economy  and to the people,” he said. “ People who own restaurants and hotels and the rank-and-file employees.”

Although at odds with Corcoran, the opinion puts Gruters in agreement with Gov. Rick Scott, whose staff have worked with the freshman representative to draft a bill that would keep Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida in tact but add reforms to increase transparency. That legislation has yet to be filed.

Haley sent out a plea to tourism stakeholders this week, in which she said she planned to travel to Tallahassee for the meeting tomorrow.

“Here at home, a drop in tourism will hurt our tourist development tax funding and threaten our arts organizations, beach maintenance, beach renourishment and spring training,” Haley wrote in the email, which was sent to local elected officials Monday afternoon. 

 Miller said she’s received 1,000 emails related to the legislation.

The Careers & Competition Subcommittee is slated to discuss the bill at 1 p.m. Wednesday. Rep. Julio Gonzalez, who represents south county, also sits on the subcommittee.

Looking ahead, Haley said local tourism officials will shift their focus to the Florida Senate, in which they have a champion in Sen. Jack Latvala.

“In fairness to all of our representatives, it will be very difficult for them to support the tourism industry because they are under tremendous pressure from the house speaker, and that pressure could surely impact their projects,” she wrote in the email.

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