Gov. Rick Scott visits Tampa to defend economic incentives, tourism programs

TAMPA — Less than a week after a Florida House committee voted to kill the state's job incentives program and tourism marketing agency, Gov. Rick Scott rallied local tourism and economic development leaders in Tampa Bay to help fight back.5 Days Ago5 Months...

Gov. Rick Scott visits Tampa to defend economic incentives, tourism programs

TAMPA — Less than a week after a Florida House committee voted to kill the state's job incentives program and tourism marketing agency, Gov. Rick Scott rallied local tourism and economic development leaders in Tampa Bay to help fight back.

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While Scott's rallying cries were well supported by the many in the hospitality and economic development communities in Tampa Bay who showed up to listen Monday, his message did not do much to soothe the fears many of them have about a future without Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.

"Now is the time to call your representatives and senators and tell them how you feel," Scott said to several dozen people who participated in a round table discussion at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa. "I can veto a bill, but if they put no funding forward (for Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida), I can't help."

Previous coverage: Rebuffing Rick Scott, House Republicans vote to slash marketing, incentives

A few in the crowd wore blue T-shirts that said "fighting for jobs in FL." A handful of others had signs that read "tourism matters" and other supportive slogans.

Many of Tampa Bay's industry leaders spoke in support of saving the two agencies, including Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson, and Maryann Ferenc, owner of the Tampa restaurant Mise en Place and the vice chair of the board of directors for Visit Florida.

"It took years for Florida to build the reputation it has for corporate site selection," said Craig Richards, the CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. "That's partly what drew me to this job. I've worked in economic development in five states and never heard of anyone doing away with incentives."

The Republican governor planned to stop in Cape Coral and Flagler Beach Monday, in addition to Tampa. Scott made a counter argument to House leaders who last week blasted both Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida as "corporate welfare" that puts the power in the hands of the government to pick winners and losers. But tourism and economic development advocates say that eliminating these programs would hurt tourism and job creation in the state and in Tampa Bay.

"If eliminated, it would be devastating for Florida," said Roger Dow, the president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. Dow lives in St. Petersburg and commutes to Washington D.C., where is office is based. He was among the hundreds who were in Tallahassee last week to show support for Visit Florida. "This is about Hillsborough jobs, not Tallahassee politics. There will be ripple effects."

Dow cited Colorado's decision to eliminate its tourism marketing budget in 1993, which opened up the ski tourism market to new states like Utah and resulted in a $1.4 billion loss in annual tourism revenue. Dow said Colorado is only now reaching the visitor levels it had in the '90s.

"Everyone in the world is vying to get your tourism business," Dow said. "Why take the chance of sending people somewhere else?"

It's unclear how the state's dozens of local tourism bureaus and economic development agencies would operate without the support of a state agency. Uncertainty seemed to be the collective fear of small business owners, hotel staff and economic development leaders Monday.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn was concerned that eliminating Enterprise Florida could affect Tampa's ability to attract new businesses and continue to incubate the growing ones already here. Jeff Vinik has made a public effort to draw new businesses to downtown Tampa through his plans to redevelop 50-plus acres of the city's urban core. Vinik, who owns the Tampa Bay Lightning and has an ownership stake in Strategic Property Partners, the real estate venture in charge of the $3 billion redevelopment project, vowed to bring a corporate relocation and major employer to downtown Tampa.

"We'll be far less competitive," said Buckhorn, who added that without tourism marketing, hosting major events like the NCAA College Championship game will be much more difficult, too.

"Incentives are a significant part of the solution," Buckhorn said. "It's absurd. This is not good for Florida or Floridians. Creating jobs makes sense. We need to keep it in place."

Times staff writer Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report. Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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