Tourism development proposal would impact revenue, Treasure Coast officials say

Published: Mar. 30, 2023 at 5:35 PM EDT
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Tourism officials from the Treasure Coast to Palm Beach County have growing concerns about a new state proposal, they fear, threatens tourism, the promotion of local festivals, spring training, and even the state of Florida itself.

Despite opposition from tourism officials across the state Tuesday, Republicans on a Florida House Committee voted in favor of the proposal, which would require Florida's 62 counties with tourism development councils to contribute 5% of their tourism development tax to the state to fund Visit Florida, the state's lead marketing agency, for the next three years.

The alternative would be to get rid of Visit Florida altogether, and the close to 40 million visitors it's estimated to have brought to the state.

“Visit Florida has been a godsend to all of the counties in the state," said St. Lucie County District 1 Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky. Dzadovsky is also the county's chairman of tourism development council.

“I can tell you it might be a little short sighted. Here in St. Lucie County, we’ve been able to secure our economy, because of the development tax," he said. "It has been an opportunity to save spring training on the east coast of Florida, which is a huge opportunity for the state in keeping businesses in business."

Martin County's Tourism Director Nerissa Okiye echoed his concerns, adding the proposal would require Visit Florida to use 75% of the funds contributed by individual counties to market rural counties, leaving Martin County out.

"So in theory, we’re spending our money to market other destinations," Okiye said.

She also added she has concerns about the state dictating how each county can spend their bed tax, not only creating a huge financial blow, but also requiring counties to give up home rule.

"The long-term effects of this proposed legislation, as it stands, is catastrophic," Okiye said.

"It's really significant," Dzadovsky said, referring to the amount of money they'd have to contribute each year. "In our case, it would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Dzadovsky said that money is used to market St. Lucie County and maintain the Mets stadium, adding spring training alone brings tens of thousands of visitors into the county each year, who then invest in the county long-term.

"The bigger picture here is how do the small businesses react to that? When COVID hit and the Mets were not playing, all those business in St Lucie West were drying up, because they didn’t have business," Dzadovsky said.

"This is very serious. This is a seven-alarm type of thing that people should all be aware of," said Jorge Pesquera, the CEO of Discover the Palm Beaches. "Just imagine the erosion in business and the loss of revenues at the restaurants, the stores, the convention center, the airport—every industry would take a hit because of this legislation.“

One of those to take a hit would be Mike Laflamme, the manager of popular tourist spot Shuckers— a waterfront restaurant in Martin County.

“Everybody comes to Shuckers, they want to sit outside, have a great lunch or dinner," Laflamme said.

Laflamme said 50% to 60% of his customers are out of town visitors. Without them, Shuckers wouldn't survive.

“We’ll all suffer if they don’t come. We depend on tourism," Laflamme said. "We need the advertising. It’s great for business. Why would you stop that?”

Okiye added the loss goes beyond just tourism—beaches and inlets that are maintained using tourism development tax dollars would suffer, too.

"In the last five years, you’re looking at close to $4.7 million of tourism tax that has been used for improvements in beaches and inlets," Okiye said. "Who’s going to fund that?"

Dzadovsky said a move like this has been tried before and failed.

“I can tell you we looked at it when this came up a few years back. We looked at the state of Colorado, they did a study on how they were going to reduce their tourism tax," Dzadovsky said. "They did away with it, and they found it to be a horrible, horrible idea. It took many years for them to get back and really see the value of tourism."

However, during the house committee hearing, supports of the proposal said counties should be able to contribute funds, because of the excess revenue they took in during the post-COVID boost in tourism. Yet, Okiye said they need those funds as a reserve in case another disaster hits.

"People forget tourism funding isn't finite, its not guaranteed, it's based on a variety of factors," Okiye said. "So, any number of factors, from environmental hurricanes, to pandemics, can impact how much people are coming to stay here, which impacts how much we collect."

Okiye, Dzadovsky, Pesquera and Laflamme all urged lawmakers to reconsider.

“Tallahassee, please take a look at this," Okiye said.

WFLX reached out to lawmakers and are waiting to hear back.

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