Gov. Rick Scott gathered with Palm Beach County business and municipal leaders Wednesday to rally support for two state agencies facing elimination, Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.
The visit came as local tourism leaders announced a record-breaking 7.35 million visitors traveled to Palm Beach County in 2016 — a milestone they said shows the power of tourism marketing groups like Visit Florida.
The governor, during a trip to Sancilio & Co. Inc.’s facility in Riviera Beach, urged the more than 100 people in attendance to visit, call, and email their lawmakers.
“You need to say, ‘What in the living daylights are you thinking?’” the governor said to a conference room packed with a diverse array of blue-chip company executives, heads of chambers and elected city leaders. “It’s just politics. I have no idea why people want to do this.”
The two private-public agencies, which promote Florida as a hot spot for business and tourism, are under pressure in Tallahassee. A bill, which cleared a House committee this past week, would abolish both, and in theory save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. The measure comes after years of wrangling between the governor and legislators over incentives to recruit out-of-state businesses to move to the Sunshine State.
Opposition by lawmakers to the tourism marketing agency, Visit Florida, surged after criticism of a $1 million contract with performing artist Pitbull. The revelation of the formerly secret contract cost former Visit Florida CEO Will Seccombe his job, and also led to the departure of two other agency officials.
Despite the shake up, the number of visitors who traveled to Palm Beach County in 2016 grew by 5.8 percent above 2015’s level, according to Discover The Palm Beaches, the county’s tourism marketing arm.
The increase marks the eighth consecutive year of tourism growth in the county.
“This is powerful testimony that tourism marketing works,” said Jorge Pesquera, Discover’s president and CEO.
Pesquera has warned the elimination Visit Florida could have “negative and immediate” impact on the economy.
“Our future success is critically dependent on Florida remaining competitive against global destinations, many of which have greater resources for tourism marketing,” Pesquera said Wednesday. “Now, more than ever, Discover The Palm Beaches stands firm in our support of Visit Florida. The local tourism industry provides jobs for more than 66,000 people, and everyone, from citizens to public services and local businesses, wins when you invest in strong destination marketing.”
On Wednesday, Pesquera joined other local business and civic leaders to back the governor’s effort to build support for both agencies.
Kelly Smallridge, head of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, said it’s critical for the county to have the state’s support to lure companies and jobs here. She revealed that interest in Palm Beach County from non-Florida companies has slumped since talk of abolishing Enterprise Florida ramped up this past fall.
“We are not getting any calls,” she said of leads for potential corporate moves here. “This is not government picking winners and losers. This is something that helps everyone. Everyone benefits.”
The argument that the dollars spent on marketing the Sunshine State as a business center and tourism mecca is a win for Florida’s 20 million residents was echoed by others in attendance, including officials representing The Breakers, the Jupiter Beach Resort, Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky unit, Pratt & Whitney, Florida Power & light Co. and dozens of other corporations that are either based here or have operations in the county.
In fact, Michelle Hillery of the Palm Beach County Film and Television Commission warned that Tallahassee’s war on incentives has already cost the state. She pointed out that more than a year ago, lawmakers allowed incentives for film and television production to sunset, and Florida is paying a price for it.
“Florida has lost $900 million worth of film and TV projects since then,” she said.