While the U.S. Senate is officially in recess, Bill Nelson brought a bit of Washington D.C. to St. Petersburg.
On the USFSP campus Thursday, the Florida Democrat hosted a meeting of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which focused on the threats to the state’s tourism-driven economy.
Last year, Florida attracted 112 million visitors, generating $108 billion for the state’s economy and supporting 1.4 million jobs. But that dependence on the tourism industry means any problems (man-made or through nature) could impact that cash cow for the state’s future economy.
Nelson was joined by local Democratic Reps. Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist, who also shared the dais with Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, and Pinellas County Commission Chair Janet Long.
Nelson boasted about sponsoring the 2006 bill with then-GOP Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, calling for an oil drilling ban off much of the state’s Gulf Coast through most of 2022. That translates into a no-drilling zone through June 30, 2022, extending 125 miles off much of Florida’s Gulf Coast, reaching as far as 235 miles at some points in the eastern Gulf.
Nelson wants that ban to continue until 2027, but says it’s “vigorously opposed by the oil industry.”
Castor took Nelson’s idea further, saying her Florida Coastal Protection Act would prohibit oil drilling, leasing, preleasing and any related activities off the Gulf Coast and the Straits of Florida permanently. However, she had been reintroducing that bill in Congress for the past eight years.
Castor notes that a huge challenge to the tourism industry, as well as the future of everyday Floridians, is the changing environment — higher air-conditioning bills, more beach renourishment, and rising flood and property insurance rates.
“If we do not act now to get ahead of this, we’re going to be facing a very difficult future,” she said.
Another concern for Florida is that President Donald Trump has slated to completely cut funding for Brand USA, a federally funded organization to promote America overseas as a tourist destination.
“I think it’s the classic definition of a penny wise and a pound-foolish,” Nelson said, adding that Castor and Crist would fight to maintain that funding in the budget.
Also testifying were many local experts.
Mise en Place co-owner Maryann Ferenc, a member of the Brand USA board of directors, told committee members the organization generated nearly $3.9 billion in federal, state and local taxes, and supports 50,900 incremental jobs annually.
Robin Sollie, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, indirectly referenced the attempted budget cuts to VISIT Florida in the Legislature this year when she spoke about Brand USA, particularly in “emerging markets like Dubai and Cuba.”
University of Florida Associate Dean of Research Sherry Larking said Florida’s tourist economy is based on natural resources. Preserving those resources was crucial for Florida’s economic interests, she said.
Mitchell Roffer, president of Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecast Service, said threats to Florida’s economy come from both inside and outside the state. He singled out water quality, habitat degradation, and climate change.