DeSantis business recruitment, tourism picks approved


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis’ picks to lead state business-recruitment and tourism-marketing efforts were unanimously approved Monday by the boards of Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.

The votes to hire Jamal Sowell as president and CEO of Enterprise Florida and Dana Young for the same position at Visit Florida came a day before DeSantis will take over as the state’s 45th governor.

Young, a former Republican state senator from Tampa, will be paid $165,000 a year, the same as outgoing Visit Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson, who DeSantis is moving to the Department of Economic Opportunity.

Young, who, like Lawson, will work without a formal contract, told the Visit Florida board she was “honored to have your trust and support” and that she intends to travel the state to meet with the board members.

Sowell, chief of staff at Port Tampa Bay, said he intends to “effectively carry out the vision of Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis to ensure that jobs are brought to Florida.”

No contract, salary or start date was set for Sowell or discussed during the Enterprise Florida call.

Sowell is replacing Pete Antonacci, who was paid $165,000 by Enterprise Florida.

Antonacci was appointed in November by outgoing Gov. Rick Scott as Broward County supervisor of elections upon the suspension of embattled elections supervisor Brenda Snipes.

The Enterprise Florida board took about seven minutes to hire Sowell as its next president and CEO during a conference call. The public-private agency’s executive committee supported Sowell last month.

Sowell, an Orlando native who served in the U.S. Marines after earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Florida, credited former UF President Bernie Machen and Port Tampa Bay President and CEO Paul Anderson for teaching him leadership skills.

“They allowed me to learn from their successes and mistakes,” Sowell said.

Sowell returned to the University of Florida --- where he had been a student body president --- to work as an assistant to Machen after the Marines, where he rose from a private to captain and was deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Sowell later earned a master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a law degree from Indiana University. While in Indiana, he was appointed by Vice President Mike Pence, then the state’s governor, to a board regulating health facility administrators.

“Certainly, he’s been in and around government for quite some time, and obviously his leadership skills coming from the military certainly will translate well,” said Joe York, vice chairman of the Enterprise Florida Board of Directors. “He’s very likeable. I think he’s going to do a fantastic job.”

Scott, who is the chairman of the Enterprise Florida board, was not heard on the call. His office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on his participation. His daily schedule didn’t list him as planning to participate.

The Visit Florida board meeting took about 15 minutes and was held in a conference call.

Board Chairman Lino Maldonado praised Young as having been an “ardent supporter of the tourism industry” who is expected to help the agency navigate the Legislature in the upcoming session, when funding for Visit Florida will a “critical” topic.

Under Scott, Visit Florida has seen its annual budget grow from $35 million in 2011 to $76 million for the current fiscal year, while the estimated number of tourists to the state has increased from 87.3 million to 116.5 million in 2017.

Dan Rowe, a board member from Panama City, said he doesn’t know Young but noted others in the industry have spoken highly of her support for destination-marketing organizations across the state.

Local tourist-development councils clashed with House leaders the past two years over new state disclosure rules that outlined how they were to spend tax dollars if they participated in a state program known as the “Targeted Marketing Assistance Program.”

Young, an attorney, served in the House from 2010 through 2016, when she was elected to the Senate. In her final two years in the House, she served as the majority leader.

Young lost to Tampa Democrat Janet Cruz by 411 votes out of 207,745 cast in the Senate District 18 race in November. The contest was one of the most closely watched --- and expensive --- legislative races in the state.