TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Visit Florida, the state’s primary tourism marketing arm, is beginning the new budget year with $26 million less in funding.
It came after a bitter fight to close the agency. One casualty of the cut was the closing of a rural welcome center on the state line in the Florida Panhandle.
Yearly, 300,000 vehicles cross the Alabama-Florida state line on U.S. Highway 231 in Jackson County. The welcome center there is the least visited in the state.
That’s why the agency put the center on the chopping block. It was set to close Sunday night.
“We’ll be assuming operations of this welcome center,” said Jennifer Adams with the Northwest Florida Tourism Council.
Keeping the center open will cost eight rural counties at least $500,000 a year.
The council worried that the major tourist destinations the south would lose business if the center closed.
“Many travelers come in and not knowing where they are going to end up, if we can capture them and direct them to any of the eight counties in Northwest Florida -- that certainly is the vision,” Adams said.
At the heart of the budget cuts was a feud between the agency and the House Speaker, Jose Oliva, who has called the agency useless.
The $26 million cut was a compromise to keep Visit Florida running for another year, but it begs the question: Do the counties taping up to run the welcome center prove that Visit Florida isn’t needed?
“No, we are not proving to the speaker of the House that Visit Florida isn’t needed,” said Dan Rowe with the Panama City Beach Visitor Bureau. "We’re showing that the tourism industry is very resilient and we are working together to tell our story.”
The funding means six employees working at the center will get to keep their jobs, but if the speaker of the House has his way, every other center along the state line could be fair game in about a year.
Capitol News reached out to the speaker of the House’s office for comment, but did not immediately get a response.