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Assessing Visit Florida beneficiaries’ assertions, predictions and anecdotes

By   /   February 15, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

As the debate over whether to fund or eliminate Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida escalates at the Florida Capitol, it’s important to consider that those who directly benefit from the mostly taxpayer-funded organizations are among their most vocal supporters.

Executive Office of the Governor

GOV. RICK SCOTT is meeting with business leaders, economic development and tourism marketing officials this week to promote Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida — two heavily taxpayer-supported organizations.

It’s natural, and predictable.

It’s also entirely appropriate that incentives and tourism marketing recipients have the opportunity to make their case for continued funding. But their appeals shouldn’t always be taken at face value.

Take Amy Lukasik, director of tourism marketing for the Flagler County Board of County Commissioners. She was one of dozens of individuals who implored House lawmakers last week not to eliminate Visit Florida or its $76 million annual appropriation.

RELATED: Enterprise Florida/Visit Florida backers make their case, lose first vote

Ken Lawson, Visit Florida’s recently appointed president and CEO, made rousing statements against the plan to kill his public-private corporation. Chris Hart, president and CEO of Enterprise Florida, did the same in his own way.

What else were they going to say?

Lukasik’s brief testimony was different. She evoked compassion while detailing positive results and robust return on investment.

“Following Hurricane Matthew, within days, Visit Florida and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association made it a priority to visit with us.

“At Visit Florida’s expense, they hired a video production company and through assistance of our office produced four videos with two more committed — in rapid fire they were posted by paid advertisement on the Google network display and all of their social media platforms. 

“Collectively, over 3.2 million people viewed the video within one month’s span and it’s growing. On our behalf and also on their expense, Visit Florida pitched a culinary trail feature of our destination with a focus on Flagler County and provided us with additional co-op programs at a rate that we could never afford on our own.

“The effort has shown dividends to our small business owners. In just one month, our collections rose 16 percent over the previous years. This would have never happened without the support of Visit Florida.”

This testimony, along with remarks from nearly a dozen others during last week’s packed House committee meeting, was included in an official press release from Gov. Rick Scott’s office.

Scott wants $85 million for new Enterprise Florida incentives, $23 million for Enterprise Florida operations, and another $76 million for Visit Florida this year.

Lukasik’s claims about Visit Florida successfully benefiting small businesses in her community and boosting revenue collections by 16 percent was reported by the Orlando Sentinel.

“This would have never happened without the support of Visit Florida,” the Sentinel quoted.

Watchdog.org also repeated Lukasik’s comments.

“They viewed our damage and had conversations on how they could help immediately overcome national attention stating our destination was closed for business,” we reported.

FlaglerLive, a local nonprofit journalism watchdog, is intimately familiar with the situation, and offered a different take:

“I don’t know where Lukasik got the notion that the place was closed for business. I certainly hope that’s not what she and her boss Matt Dunn, the local tourism director whose relationship with facts is often a fascinating study in surrealism, conveyed to the marketers from on high: Flagler Beach started reopening its beaches within two weeks of the hurricane, and as local media screamed it within a couple of days of the storm, nothing else was closed for business (Washington Oaks Garden State Park aside), least of all the businesses along A1A.

“I’ve never known Flagler Beach to be the sort of town that’s ever depended on tourism’s equivalent of kitty-cat videos on randomized sites to take care of itself: the city was back in business, including its beaches, thanks to its volunteers, its city commission and city manager, and of course its businesses, all of which screamed “We’re Open!”

Pierre Tristam, author of “The Live Column,” continued:

“Lukasik claimed to the House panel the video plug “has shown dividends to our small business owners.” Her proof? “In just one month following Hurricane Matthew our collections rose 16 percent over the previous years.”

“I’m not sure where that number comes from, or whether Lukasik has her timeline right, but the month after Matthew was November, and in November — the last month for which data is available to us—collections were down 9.2 percent.”

Other public comments from the House meeting – some included on Scott’s press release – took the form of unverifiable assertions and predictions. Some had the tone of scare tactics. All of them were first-person narratives.

“Because we are a local economic development organization, everything we do involves Enterprise Florida. We work together in ways that transcend brokering incentives,” said Scarlett Phaneuf, vice president of the Bay Economic Development Alliance.

Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association, was more assertive. “If you take this economy on, I can guarantee you the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars,” Dow said.

“I moved here because it’s a no income tax state, but the bottom line is you have no choice. If you pass this bill, you are going to go to an income tax or increase sales taxes or cut services. That’s not acceptable,” he said.

Keith Overton, president of Trade Winds Island Resorts, said that eliminating Visit Florida would eliminate the voice of independent hoteliers.

“What happens when tourists get shot like the Germans?” he asked, referencing an incident from two and a half decades ago. “What happens when we have Zika Virus? What happens when we have an oil spill? Who’s there to defend us? Are we going to leave that to the national media,” asked Overton.

Expect more of the same.

Scott is touring the state this week to promote Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. He’s holding public events with local business leaders, and economic development and tourism officials, similar to those who lined up to speak in favor of continued funding last week.

On Monday, Scott visited Flagler Beach for a town hall-style meeting. Not by coincidence, Flagler County is home to Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, who is sponsoring the bill to abolish the taxpayer-assisted programs.

Scott was also in Tampa on Monday for a public event at the Museum of Science and Industry, squarely in the district of Rep. Shawn Harrison. He voted for Renner’s House bill.

On Tuesday, Scott visited Panama City Beach and hosted a roundtable discussion. Rep. Jay Trumbull voted for the House bill and hails from Panama City Beach.

On Wednesday, Scott will host roundtables in Sunrise and Riviera Beach. A lot of promotional claims will be made.

Regardless of whether one supports publicly assisting private businesses, $151 million in funding is at stake this year alone. Those who directly benefit from the largesse are predictably going to be among the most fervent supporters, but they also may be among the least reliable.

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William Patrick is Watchdog.org’s Florida reporter. His work has been featured by Fox News, the Drudge Report, and Townhall.com, as well as other national news and opinion websites. He’s also been cited and reposted by numerous state news organizations, including Florida Trend, Sunshine State News and the Miami Herald, and is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Florida Press Association. William’s work has impacted discussions on education, privacy, criminal justice reform, and government and corporate accountability. Prior to joining Watchdog, William worked for the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Fla. There, he launched a legislative news website covering state economic issues. After leaving New York City in 2010, William worked for the Florida Attorney General’s Office where he assisted state attorneys general in prosecuting Medicaid Fraud. William graduated magna cum laude from Hunter College, City University of New York. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife and three young children.