Proposed cuts to Florida tourism programs could affect Jacksonville Zoo

House has voted to abolish Enterprise Florida, slash funding for Visit Florida

By Crystal Moyer - Traffic/reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - One of Northeast Florida’s largest tourist attractions could be affected by proposed changes to Florida’s tourism-marketing efforts.

Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, have been locked in a battle about the economic-development agency Enterprise Florida and tourism-marketer Visit Florida. The Corcoran-led House has voted to abolish Enterprise Florida and to cut funding for Visit Florida. Scott has barnstormed the state to try to build support for the agencies, which he says are important to job creation. Senate leaders have largely sided with Scott, and the dispute could play out in the budget negotiations.

News4Jax went to the zoo Monday to see exactly what those cuts would mean.

"On any given day, if you drive through our parking lot, you're going to see cars with license plates from all over the country,” said JJ Vitale, marketing specialist for the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.

Vitale credits Visit Florida for the growing number of visitors. For the last few years, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has been receiving a $5,000 grant to advertise outside of Northeast Florida.

"They really get to maximize our dollar. We're a nonprofit, we don't have a lot of money to advertise, so when Visit Florida gets to bring people to our area, then they're going to see our advertising and come here,” Vitale said.

Last year, the Jacksonville Zoo hosted more than a million visitors -- the most it’s ever had.

Visit Florida reports more than 20 million out-of-towners visited the River City last year -- boosting the economy and creating jobs.

A study by state economists also shows that for every dollar spent by Visit Florida between 2011 and 2013, it generated $3.20.

For the people at the Jacksonville Zoo, that benefits more than just the economy.

“The benefits go beyond tourism into some things you don’t necessarily see,” said Lucas Meers, conservation program officer at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. "Every time someone walks through our gates, a portion of their ticket goes to our conservation programs -- saving striped newts in Florida or replanting orchids in South Florida to saving tigers around the world."

Last year, more than $300,000 was put toward conservation efforts, which is something that zoo representatives said makes Visit Florida a win-win for everyone.

The Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee on March 28 proposed matching Scott's budget request for $76 million for tourism-marketer Visit Florida, while also setting aside more than $80 million for programs tied to Enterprise Florida, the economic-development agency the House has voted to abolish.

Meanwhile, the House Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee countered by proposing $25 million for Visit Florida and $10 million for Space Florida, $3 million more than Senate has offered.

The proposals are an initial step as lawmakers prepare to negotiate a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The House and Senate will each pass spending plans, setting the stage for detailed negotiations of a final budget.


The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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